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WHO warns Cyclone Freddy raising ‘major’ health risks

Devastation in southern Africa wrought by Cyclone Freddy is raising “major health risks,” including the spread of cholera, the World Health Organization said on Thursday.

In a statement, the United Nations agency said that torrential downpours and flooding had destroyed over 300 health facilities in Madagascar, Malawi and Mozambique.

Cyclone Freddy dissipated last week after leaving a trail of destruction across southern Africa and causing more than 600 deaths.

“The cyclone has left an appalling humanitarian situation in its wake … increased and concerted humanitarian assistance is needed” to support affected people recover and cope with the disaster, WHO regional director for Africa, Matshidiso Moeti said in an online briefing.

The long-lasting, brutal cyclone destroyed houses, roads, farmland and hospitals and has “stretched the capacity of health facilities,” claiming hundreds of lives among the more than 1.4 million affected people as of March 20 in the three countries, she said.

Cyclone Freddy first hit Madagascar and Mozambique in February.

The storm went back out to the Indian Ocean and then made a second landfall in March that was far more devastating in Malawi where it has killed about 500 people

In Mozambique, an estimated 900,000 people have also been affected. Many risk a resurgent cholera outbreak, aid agencies say.

Malawi and Mozambique were already among the countries most affected by a cholera outbreak that has resulted in more than 68,000 cases across 12 countries in southern and eastern Africa this year alone, according to humanitarian agencies.

In Malawi, cholera had already killed more than 1,600 people and together with Mozambique “millions” of children and their families are now vulnerable to a “potential increase” in cases, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said this week.

“Devastation and flooding caused by the cyclone have added to the serious vulnerabilities of children and families in the countries, further weakened by inadequate water, hygiene, health and sanitation systems,” said UNICEF in a statement.

In Mozambique, cholera cases have risen almost four-fold to about 11, 000 since February, UNICEF said.

Other humanitarian needs are mounting in the region and aid agencies are scrambling to pool resources to alleviate the unfolding disaster.

Cyclone Freddy is expected to be declared the longest-ever cyclone in recorded history. It is the latest of weather-related disasters such as floods, storms and debilitating droughts that have devastated sub-Saharan Africa in the past decade — a sign of the deadly impact of climate change in a region with weak economies and infrastructure ill-equipped to cope with such ravages.

Cyclones have been worsened by human-caused climate change, with warming temperatures making cyclones, wetter, more intense and more frequent, according to experts.

Richer, more industrialised nations have caused much of the greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change but the less developed countries often bear the brunt of the weather changes, a reality which led to a “loss and damage” fund for climate disasters being agreed last year.