A girl stops to look as a man walks past carrying luggage on his head after Cyclone Idai in Buzi district outside Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019.
A girl stops to look as a man walks past carrying luggage on his head after Cyclone Idai in Buzi district outside Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019.

GENEVA - Aid agencies are scrambling to get life-saving aid to hundreds of thousands of survivors of Cyclone Idai in Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe. The United Nations says 1.7 million people are affected by the disaster, which has caused extensive damage to infrastructure, homes and crops.

A World Food Programme (WFP) helicopter takes off,
A World Food Programme (WFP) helicopter takes off, in Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019.

The full extent and magnitude of the disaster is starting to emerge as aid workers gain access to more of the flooded areas and are able to assess the needs. Official figures in hardest-hit Mozambique put the death toll Friday at 242, but the government says it expects the figure to rise to 1,000 or more.

Hundreds of thousands of people are homeless and in need of shelter.

Survivors of Cyclone Idai in a makeshift shelter b
Survivors of Cyclone Idai in a makeshift shelter by the roadside near Nhamatanda about 50 kilometres from Beira, in Mozambique, March, 22, 2019.

Other priority needs include food, clean water, medicine and health care. The World Health Organization (WHO) warns of the spread of infectious diseases among people living in flooded, unsanitary conditions.

WHO spokesman Christian Lindmeier said the agency is taking measures to prevent and respond to water-borne diseases and cholera, to control diseases like malaria, measles outbreaks and respiratory diseases. He said  conditions in the temporary camps sheltering the displaced are squalid and ripe for disease outbreaks.

“So, there is lack of safe drinking water and sanitation," he said. "That means there is a high risk of a cholera outbreak or other infectious diseases. And, let me remind you, in terms of cholera in the past six years, there has been a cholera outbreak every year in Mozambique. The most recent one ended only in 2018 … with close to 2,000 cases.”

Tents belonging to aid organiaations are seen afte
Tents belonging to aid organiaations are seen after Cyclone Idai at Guara Guara village outside Beira, Mozambique, March 22, 2019.

The WHO has sent a team of experts to oversee the operation in Mozambique. It also has sent emergency medical supplies, including malaria treatments to cover the primary health care needs for 10,000 people for three months. 

The agency says 53 health facilities have been damaged. But the full extent of the damage, according to Lindmeier, is unknown because many locations still are inaccessible.

He said priorities are to provide trauma care, emergency health services and to bury the dead.

Because of the high risk of a measles outbreak, he said the WHO is preparing for an emergency measles vaccination effort to begin as soon as possible.