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Press Release

Deadly malaria and cholera outbreaks grow amongst refugees as COVID pandemic strains health systems, warns IRC

The International Rescue Committee is extremely concerned about the rise of infectious diseases alongside COVID-19. There is an increase in malaria and cholera cases compared to previous years due in part to COVID-related disruptions severely impeding diagnosis and treatment of the diseases, access to relief from floods as well as affordability of mosquito nets. Displaced and refugee families live together in small tents and makeshift homes and are confined together in small spaces without access to proper water, sanitation and hygiene, making the conditions ripe for outbreaks of these diseases as well as contracting COVID-19. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has been responding to the pandemic as well as the two outbreaks and is now calling for a rapid increase of funding to scale up our response and mitigate disease spread.

Mesfin Teklu Tessema, Senior Director of Health at the IRC, said, 

“We are extremely concerned about the spike in malaria and cholera cases amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused more strain on the existing health system for those most vulnerable, and now these other disease outbreaks are worsening the situation amidst a scarcity in health personnel and supplies. The IRC has been training our health care workers to recognize symptoms and safely support patients suffering from malaria, cholera and COVID-19. Still, health services in many countries are not fit to handle coinciding outbreaks of these diseases, and we need urgent support to scale up our response now.

“For those displaced, these diseases are especially dangerous due to cramped living spaces and poor access to water and sanitation facilities and shelter. In countries such as Afghanistan and Pakistan which hosts more than 1.4 million refugees, the monsoon season has brought an increase in the risk of these diseases. Apart from the strain on health facilities during the pandemic, in some countries such as Somalia, Kenya and Sierra Leone, we are seeing that a fear of exposure to COVID-19 has prevented parents from taking their children to hospital, delaying diagnosis and treatment of malaria and increasing preventable deaths. COVID restrictions in some countries have also meant pregnant women have missed antimalarial drugs. Untreated malaria in pregnant women can increase the risk of anaemia, premature births, low birth weight and infant death.  According to the World Health Organization (WHO),  80% of programs designed to fight HIV, tuberculosis and malaria have been disrupted due to the pandemic and 46% of 68 countries report experiencing disruptions in the treatment and diagnosis of malaria.

“In Kenya’s Kakuma refugee camp, cholera cases were previously few and immediately contained but this year the situation has worsened due to seasonal rains and poor sanitation facilities at the camp. In previous years, spraying greatly reduced the burden of malaria by more than 80%; this has not been done in 2020. COVID has also coincided with ongoing malaria outbreaks in Niger and Zimbabwe this year. In DRC, malaria remains the leading cause of death even as the country battles COVID-19 and a new Ebola outbreak

With more funding, the IRC can scale up its work by hiring and training health workers, procuring essential drugs, targeting expectant mothers in malaria prevention, improving access to water and sanitation, increasing surveillance for potential cases, ensuring our clients are informed and know how best to protect themselves and reinforcing infection, prevention and control at our health facilities. During this session of the UNGA, support must urgently be provided to health needs beyond COVID: including the spread of other deadly but preventable diseases. More support from the international community will help us mitigate the spread of disease and save lives.

The IRC has launched a US $30 million appeal to help us mitigate the spread of coronavirus among the world’s most vulnerable populations. We are working across three key areas: to mitigate and respond to the spread of coronavirus within vulnerable communities; protect IRC staff; and ensure the continuation of our life-saving programming as much as possible across more than 40 countries worldwide.

About the IRC

The International Rescue Committee responds to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, helping to restore health, safety, education, economic wellbeing, and power to people devastated by conflict and disaster. Founded in 1933 at the call of Albert Einstein, the IRC is at work in over 40 countries and over 20 U.S. cities helping people to survive, reclaim control of their future, and strengthen their communities. Learn more at www.rescue.org and follow the IRC on Twitter & Facebook.