Flooding brought on by unusually heavy rains in West Africa increases the incidence of waterborne disease. Regional health officials are preparing for higher levels of both cholera and malaria.
Sanitation and hygiene deteriorate quickly when West Africa floods. Sewage mixes with drinking water. Electricity fails. Health centers are damaged. Hectares of standing water become breeding grounds for mosquitoes that spread malaria.
"You have water that has gathered in residential areas because of poor drainage systems and sanitation," explained Robert Agyarko, the U.N. Children's Fund specialist on malaria for West and Central Africa. "People are also more exposed as a result of this flooding. People are living out of their houses. In normal conditions, it is difficult to get them to sleep under bed nets. And in conditions like this, it will be even more difficult for people to be using the protective measures of bed nets.
Floods increase transmission of malaria
Agyarko says health workers are preparing for an increase in the transmission of malaria as flooding has already affected more than 350,000 people in West Africa.
Burkina Faso has been the hardest hit with more than 130,000 people displaced by rising flood waters. Officials in the capital Ouagadougou says half the city affected.
Aid agencies say they are monitoring incidents of malaria and are concerned about possible outbreaks of cholera in Burkina Faso.
"So many public infrastructures have been destroyed," said Elizabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. "Bridges have been washed away. The main road is damaged and above all, the main hospital in Ouagadougou had to be evacuated because it was flooded. The authorities together with the U.N. agencies are monitoring the health situation."
In Senegal, UNICEF is backing Health Ministry efforts to combat waterborne diseases in flooded areas with a radio campaign and home visits.
In Ghana, the aid group Freedom from Hunger is using microfinance programs to reinforce malaria prevention through better education and broader use of insecticide-treated bed nets.
Public, private groups join to combat spread of malaria
Chloroquine-resistant strains of malaria complicate the fight, especially in emergency situations where access to proper drugs is limited. Chris Hentschel heads the Swiss public-private partnership Medicines for Malaria Ventures.
"Resistance to malaria drugs that is developing is just because the quality of drugs that are being dispensed are not good," said Chris Hentschel, the head of the Swiss public-private partnership Medicines for Malaria Ventures. "Patients cannot afford good quality drugs at times. So the international malaria community is working in creating some mechanisms which can bring down the cost of good drugs, high quality drugs for patients."
Pharmacists are becoming more involved in addressing the expected rise in malaria brought on by flooding, especially in rural areas.
"Our dispensing patterns are going to be changed," said Charles Ansah, a lecturer in pharmacy at Ghana's Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology. "The way we counsel our patients is going to be changed. We are going to advise people especially in preventive measures to ensure that we work against diseases that affect our people."
Ghanian Eastwood Anaba, both a pharmacist and a reverend, says fighting malaria is as much a clinical challenge as it is a spiritual one, especially in times of crisis. Flooding has killed 25 people in Ghana.
"The world is so unstable," he said. "The normal Human Being they try to solve their problems by developing themselves in three ways - their scientific development, their natural development and then their spiritual development. So I think that pharmacy should be revolutionized by the pharmacists beginning to look at spiritual life one more time because whether we like it or not the people who need our care will not depend on only science they will by all means turn to God."
Nearly 4,000 homes in Niger are partially destroyed, 22,000 people in Benin are affected by rising waters and 6,000 people are displaced in the Guinean capital, Conakry.
With so many people uprooted by floods, malaria specialist Agyarko says even parents who know the warning signs of malaria may miss them in their children.
"Potentially, some parents might overlook a fever in a child which could potentially be malaria. If at all possible, children should be made to sleep under bed nets, even in these conditions," added Agyarko.
Even if properly diagnosed, West Africans affected by the floods face the problem of access to medicines to cure malaria in neighborhoods where pharmacies are under water.