May 31, 2002

Bubonic plague adds to woes

Malawi's existing health challenges of cholera, malnutrition, malaria and HIV/AIDS have been joined by another - the bubonic plague. Seventy one cases of the medieval-sounding disease carried by fleas and rodents have been reported in the far south of the country since April 2002, the World Health Organisation (WHO) said on Thursday, May 28.

The first victim this year was a nine-year-old girl from Zavedo village. Outbreaks of bubonic plague have occurred in Nsanje district at the southern tip of the country since 1994 with the number of cases peaking at 304 in 1999. There were no reported cases for the two years before April 2002.

The plague, which has a case fatality ratio of up to 60 percent if left untreated, has also been reported in Moçambique leading to cross-border collaboration between Moçambican and Malawian health teams. "WHO is concerned due to the fact that the current epidemic is combined with malnutrition because of the food shortage in the country. It is a well-known fact that prevalence and severity of all infectious diseases increase where malnutrition is rampant," a statement said.

A World Food Programme (WFP) assessment released this week estimated that 3.2 million Malawians face food shortages due to anticipated food shortages this year. The country is only just recovering from a cholera epidemic which killed over 900 people. Malawi's overstretched health services now share the added burden of finding chemicals to spray against fleas and rodents and staff who know how to treat the disease. The UN children's agency, UNICEF, and WHO response includes providing cash to districts to buy insecticides for household spraying and sending a consultant to give front line health workers refresher training. (IRIN)

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