Climate disaster: Wave of drought-induced cholera in Kenya

Acute water shortage & rationing due to prolonged droughts led to poor sanitation, cholera outbreaks across Africa

By Tony Malesi
Published: Thursday 22 December 2022
Photo: iStock__

Climate-linked health emergencies are on the rise across Africa and the deadly cholera outbreak in drought-hit Kenya is only the latest example. 

Kenyan authorities and health experts have put citizens on high alert, citing the devastating effects of prolonged drought on major water towers and catchment areas.

They say this has resulted in acute water shortage and rationing, leading to poor sanitation and cholera outbreaks in major towns and counties like Nairobi, Kiambu, Machakos and Kajiado.

“Besides causing cholera, diminishing water resources due to severe drought in parts of the country are likely to lead to outbreak of other diseases associated with poor sanitation,” warned Francis Kuria, head of public health at Kenya’s ministry of health.

Read more: Drought in Kenya: Nearly 3.5 million people are hungry, says UN

The Kenyan authorities have reported hundreds of confirmed cases, just as the World Health Organization (WHO) announced reduced vaccine doses across Africa by half due to an acute supply shortage earlier in December.

The acting director-general at the ministry of health, Dr Patrick Amoth, has expressed concern that the vagaries of climate change, especially the prolonged drought, may worsen the cholera outbreak in the country due to lack of access to safe water. 

Dr Amoth advised:

Medics must watch out for cases of watery diarrhoea, strengthen their surveillance activities down to the village levels and strengthen the involvement of all laboratory personnel in disease surveillance for timely confirmation of potential cases of cholera.

The doctor and administrator warned that the bacteria responsible for cholera could also spread the disease when swallowed, such as when human waste gets into food or drinking water.

Doctors Without Borders, a French humanitarian medical non-profit, has also warned of possible cholera cases in Kenya’s Dadaab refugee camp, home to more than 200,000 people who fled Somalia’s drought and other humanitarian crises.

Cholera cases have also spiked across the African continent, particularly in the flood-hit West African nations of Cameroon and Nigeria. 

Climate-related health emergencies accounted for slightly over half of the public health cases in the continent in the last two decades, according to a new analysis by WHO.

Around 56 per cent of the recorded public health events in Africa between 2001 and 2021 were climate-related, the WHO analysis revealed.

In addition, a comparative analysis of the two decades (2001 to 2021) showed the continent witnessed an increase in climate-related emergencies, with 25 per cent more cases recorded between 2011 and 2021 than in the previous decade.

Recurrent cholera epidemics in Kenya

Kenya has a history of annual cholera epidemics that intensify every five years, according to Dr Hassan Nyawanga. He, in a phone interview, said the diarrhoeal disease, which has so far claimed over a dozen lives, can lead to death within hours if not treated. 

Dr Nyawanga noted:

Cholera is associated with poor access to clean, potable water, poor sanitation and crowded living arrangements. These factors have negatively influenced the recurrent occurrence of the disease in the country. 

He added that poor preparedness and lack of a proper and effective medical emergency response plan could have contributed to the dozen deaths following the outbreak.

“Needless to add, the high incidence rate is also a result of antibiotic resistance,” the doctor said. “A recent study in Kenya revealed that the vibrio cholera bacteria have become resistant to some antibiotics often used to treat the disease.”

Besides promoting general health, the doctor said there is a need for a multi-sectoral approach to eradicate the disease. There are approximately four million cases of cholera and 143,000 deaths worldwide yearly due to cholera, according to WHO.

Among others, ensuring access to clean water for all would drastically reduce these numbers, the United Nations health agency said. 

In Kenya, 37 per cent of the population still relies on unimproved water sources, such as wells and rivers, while 70 per cent use unhealthy sanitation solutions, according to WHO. 

Experts believe there is an urgent need for mega investments in modern, advanced tools that accurately forecast early extreme weather events like floods and droughts.

Read more: Kenya’s local communities have had limited benefits from their natural resources; here is why

The proliferation of deadly diseases like cholera is also a result of extreme weather events like floods and droughts, which lead to large-scale displacement of people, Dr Nyawanga said.  

In addition, such humanitarian crises lead to crowding and overstretching basic sanitary resources like potable water, he said.

The world is moving towards widespread and severe cholera outbreaks due to droughts, floods and conflict that hamper access to water, according to WHO. 

Unfortunately, this is happening amid an acute shortage of vaccines, even as ordinary families feel the financial heat of treating and managing cholera patients. 

Reducing the impacts of prolonged drought, experts feel, is critical in alleviating vulnerabilities among poor populations before the hazard occurs.

Read more: 

Horn of Africa faces unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe after 5th failed rainy season


Inflation is rising in Kenya: Here’s why, and how to fix it

Drought in the Horn of Africa: More than 18.5 million in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti face humanitarian crisis


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