The World Health Organization says climate change is behind an unprecedented surge in the number of cholera outbreaks around the world this year.
At least 30 countries have reported outbreaks of the deadly disease this year, about a third higher than normally seen.
Philippe Barboza, WHO’s team leader for cholera and epidemic diarrheal diseases, said most of the large cholera outbreaks have coincided with adverse climate events and have been visibly and directly affected by them.
“Very severe droughts like, for example, in the Horn of Africa, in the Sahel but also in other parts of the world,” he said. “Major floods, unprecedented monsoons, succession of cyclones. So, most again, most of these outbreaks appear to be fueled by the result of the climate change.”
No quick reprieve is in sight. The World Meteorological Organization predicts the so-called La Nina climate phenomenon will last through the end of this year. The pattern, which cools the surface of ocean waters, is expected to continue well into 2023. That will result in prolonged droughts and flooding and increased cyclones.
Consequently, health officials warn large cholera outbreaks are likely to continue and spread to wider areas over the next six months. Barboza said preventing disease outbreaks will be a challenge.
He said a global shortage of vaccine has forced the WHO to temporarily suspend its two-dose strategy and switch to a single dose approach. That allows many more people to be vaccinated against cholera. However, he said it shortens the period of immunity against infection.
“So, the situation will continue to prevail for the months to come,” he said. “There is no silver bullet, magic solution and the producers are at the maximum production. … So, there is no hope that the situation will improve in the coming weeks or months.”
Barboza said lack of data makes it impossible to accurately determine the number of global cholera cases and deaths. However, he noted information from at least 14 countries indicates the average fatality rate is above 1%. He said the cholera fatality rate in heavily affected Haiti is around 2%.
Cholera is an acute diarrheal disease caused by consuming contaminated food or water. Treatments include oral rehydration. People with severe cases need rapid intravenous fluids and antibiotics. Cholera can kill within hours if left untreated.