Fifteen million Ethiopians are facing a deadly malaria epidemic, according to a warning issued by the UN on Wednesday. This new development comes in the wake of an unprecedented and complex
humanitarian crisis hitting the impoverished country, leaving 13 million people in need of food aid.
"The risk of death spread by malaria mosquitoes looms in millions of homes in Ethiopia," the UN Country Team announced in its emergency warning. It said "thousands of deaths" could occur, because those under threat were already weakened by months of drought and hunger.
Poor rains last year country-wide resulted in the loss of nearly one-fifth of the harvest. This year, however, Ethiopia received satisfactory rains from June until September, which, analysts predict, will result in a good harvest.
But humanitarian organisations have noted that the rains have left pools of stagnant water, which have provided a fertile breeding ground for mosquitoes. "Women and children are particularly susceptible to malaria this year because of the drought," said Bjorn Ljungqvist, head of the UN Children’s Fund in Ethiopia. "We estimate that potentially 15 million are threatened by this deadly disease. That is why we are urgently appealing to the international community to avert a major malaria epidemic," he said in the capital, Addis Ababa.
Malaria is one of the biggest killers in Ethiopia, usually claiming 100,000 lives each year out of a population of 70 million. All forms of malaria are life-threatening, the most deadly being cerebral malaria, caused by the parasite plasmodium falciparum and able to kill an individual within three to four days if left untreated, according to Dr Demene Aliu of the disease surveillance section World Health Organisation.
In its emergency warning, the UN noted that the country did not have enough drugs to treat the large number of people likely to be infected as the epidemic unfolded. "In a normal transmission year, up to 5 million cases are reported annually throughout Ethiopia. However, this year there has been a long dry season followed by higher than normal rainfall patterns. Therefore, conditions are favourable for prolific mosquito breeding. The population is also more susceptible due to prevailing drought conditions in the country," it said.
"This, combined with a relatively low transmission rate over the past four years, has created the right mix for a major epidemic this year. This increase could lead to thousands of deaths if
appropriate measures are not taken to reduce malaria transmission and treat malaria cases," it added.
The Ethiopian health ministry was unavailable for comment.
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