Rising flood waters across West Africa are intensifying health risks for millions of people, and adding to the impact of the food price crisis. International aid is needed as heavy rains forecast to last until September could exacerbate health threats for conditions including malaria, diarrhoea and other potentially fatal communicable diseases.
"West Africa's annual floods bring with them not only the threat of vector-borne and communicable diseases, but it further endangers the lives of people already malnourished by the food price crisis," said Dr Eric Laroche, Assistant Director-General of WHO's Health Action in Crises Cluster.
Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Togo need urgent assistance. Flooding has caused widespread damage to bridges, roads, railway lines and other infrastructure vital for delivering health services and humanitarian supplies. Seasonal rains have also caused damage in Guinea-Bissau, Liberia and Sierra Leone.
WHO is responding by providing essential medicines, assessing the health status of the vulnerable populations - particularly children, women and the elderly - and helping raise badly needed humanitarian funding. Some US$ 418 million was requested for West Africa in 2008's revised Consolidated Appeal for the region, of which US$ 76 million was needed for emergency health care. To date, only 22% of the health funding needs have been met.
Endemic and epidemic communicable diseases are common in West Africa, with malaria being the main cause of illness and death in the region. Meningitis, cholera and yellow fever also claim scores of lives annually and cause great human suffering, which is only expected to be intensified due to the extra strains placed by the floods on the health sector. An estimated 5 million people also live with HIV/AIDS in the region, whose health care is further compromised by the flooding.
The destruction of agricultural lands and loss of crops aggravates the food security crisis in the region. Several West African countries are among the 21 worldwide identified by WHO as being most at risk from the food crisis. Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger are above the global emergency threshold for malnutrition, with over 10% of children under five years of age suffering from acute malnutrition and over 40% with chronic malnutrition. Acute malnutrition develops quickly in vulnerable populations and involves a rapid loss of weight and the greater potential for death, compared with chronic malnutrition (stunting), which develops over a longer time and affects the height and learning abilities of sufferers.
In Benin, the current flooding has displaced at least 150 000 people and raising fears of malaria, diarrhoeal diseases and respiratory infections, especially among children. WHO is helping supply clean water and provide appropriate sanitation, distribute bed nets and essential drugs, and undertake measles vaccinations for children. In Niger, 24 000 people have been displaced, while 12 000 have been displaced in Togo.