February 20, 2006

Cholera kills 24, infects thousands in hungry Malawi

BLANTYRE (Reuters) - Cholera has killed 24 people and
infected more than 2,000 others in southern Malawi, where
hunger is driving desperate villagers to eat contaminated food,
health officials said on Monday.

Blantyre, the eastern African nation's commercial hub, and
the famous resort district of Mangochi are among the areas
hardest hit by an outbreak of the disease, Secretary of Health
Wesley Sangala told Reuters.

At least 2,265 people have been infected, he said.

The outbreak began late last year and comes on the heels of
a drought and subsequent severe food shortages that have left
nearly half of Malawi's estimated 12 million people with little
to eat. The crisis is particularly bad in the southern

"We strongly suspect that people are rushing to eat food
without washing with clean water because of hunger ... this
could be the reason why we have a lot (of) people infected
compared to the same month last year," said Habib Somanje, the
ministry's head of preventive health services.

Somanje said the government in cooperation with the United
Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) had set up mobile clinics in
affected districts and sent drugs to curb the spread of the
disease, which is spread by eating or drinking food or water
contaminated with human faeces.

Cholera, which typically causes severe diarrhoea, vomiting
and dehydration, is usually not fatal when treated promptly.
Officials in Malawi, however, said they were concerned that
many of those infected were not heeding this advice.

"The most worrisome thing is that people affected are
reporting late for treatment such that others die whilst at
home," Deputy Minister of Health Charles Mchacha told Reuters.