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Almost 4.5 million children in Zambia out of school due to cholera outbreak

Almost 4.5 million children in Zambia out of school due to cholera outbreak
28 Jan 2024 21:50

ISIDORA CIRIC (ABU DHABI)

In an alarming turn of events, Zambia has been forced to postpone the reopening of schools for the second time in the wake of a devastating cholera outbreak, affecting about 4.3 million school-aged children in the country.

The outbreak has so far claimed over 500 lives, marking the worst outbreak the country has seen in 20 years, and the disease is spreading at an alarming rate, a World Health Organisation (WHO) report issued on Saturday warned. 

The southern African nation, initially scheduled to open schools on January 8, first pushed the date to January 29 due to the escalating crisis. 

However, on Wednesday, the government announced another delay, setting the new reopening date to February 12, 2024, citing a surge in cholera cases. 

Jo Musonda, Country Director for Save the Children in Zambia, in a recent statement said: “We know from the COVID-19 pandemic that the longer children are out of school, the less likely they are to go back at all, putting them at risk of child marriage, forced labour, violence, abuse and exploitation.”

The outbreak is being linked to warmer weather and unusually heavy rains and storms in southern Africa in recent months.

This dire situation has been classified as a Grade 3 emergency by the WHO, the highest grade, signifying the need for a “major/maximal WHO response”.

Since the outbreak was first reported in October 2023, Zambia has witnessed a staggering 14,900 cumulative cases and a tragic 560 deaths, with a case fatality rate of 3.8%, the report said. 

The crisis has affected 62 districts across the nation, placing nearly 20 million individuals at risk. Lusaka and Copperbelt provinces face the greatest risk due to their high population density.

Compounding this dire situation, WHO reported an 81% funding gap, with only a fraction of the required $4,664,174 received for the emergency response. 

Between January 25 and 26 alone, 390 new cases were recorded, underscoring the urgency of the situation. 

The outbreak has not only led to an increase in mortality and morbidity but has also triggered severe malnutrition, particularly in vulnerable populations. 

Cholera's highly contagious nature, especially in areas with poor sanitation and crowded living conditions, poses a significant risk of widespread transmission.

The strain on Zambia's healthcare system is palpable, as the sudden outbreak threatens to overwhelm medical facilities. 

The report indicated that such a large outbreak may also significantly strain the economic stability of a community or region by affecting the workforce, increasing healthcare costs, and discouraging tourism and local commerce.

Moreover, the fear surrounding the disease has fueled social stigma and discrimination against affected individuals and communities, the report added.

Despite the grim circumstances, some relief has come in the form of oral cholera vaccines (OCV) provided by WHO. As of January 25, 2024, 1.7 million people have been vaccinated, and WHO continues to work with various organisations to strengthen case management in cholera treatment centres and supply essential medical kits for patient care.

Save the Children has also stepped in to help combat this crisis, working closely with the Zambian government to contain the spread of cholera, according to the statement.

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