Mozambican and international health workers raced on Monday to contain the outbreak of cholera in the cyclone-hit city of Beira, where the cases of the disease has jumped to 517 and the first death has been recorded.
“There are seven emergency cholera treatment centres operational in Beira and two more being set up. Two additional centres are being set up in Nhamatanda,” said David Wightwick, the World Health Organization’s team leader in Beira.
Mozambican workers have restored clean tap water to parts of Beira, a city of 500,000, although large areas of the city still do not have access to sanitary water, he told The Associated Press while visiting a water treatment centre.
“A vaccination campaign against cholera, with 900,000 doses of the vaccine, will start Wednesday,” said Wightwick.
“That should blunt the edge of this outbreak.”
WATCH: Crucial aid delivered to those displaced by cyclone in Mozambique
More than two weeks after Cyclone Idai hit Beira and swept across central Mozambique, about 98,000 people are in camps for displaced and “living under canvas,” he said.
“Cholera is our most immediate challenge,” said Wightwick, who added that getting adequate nutrition to the population and battling other diseases like malaria are also priorities.
In addition to Mozambican medics, health workers from Portugal, Denmark, Italy and China are helping respond to the crisis.
Cases of cholera, an acute diarrheal disease, have risen dramatically since the first five cases were confirmed last week. Cholera is spread by contaminated water and food. It can kill within hours but is relatively easy to treat.
The overall cyclone death toll in Mozambique has risen to 518. With 259 deaths in Zimbabwe and 56 in Malawi, the three-nation death toll is now more than 815. Authorities warn the tolls are preliminary as receding flood waters expose more bodies.
The U.S. military joined the international humanitarian aid efforts to Mozambique by airlifting food and relief supplies from South Africa.
Round-the-clock flights are delivering supplies from the U.N. World Food Program from King Shaka International Airport in Durban, South Africa, said Robert Mearkle, U.S. embassy spokesman.
He said the commodities airlifted from Durban were from the World Food Program’s internal stock including rice, dried peas and vegetable oil.
“This lifesaving emergency food assistance will support approximately 160,000 people for one month,” said Mearkle.
WATCH: Red Cross says cyclone death toll to ‘rise significantly’ (March 20, 2019)
As health responders stress the need for better disease surveillance, the United Nations’ deputy humanitarian co-ordinator in Mozambique, Sebastian Rhodes Stampa, has said all cases of diarrhea are being treated as though they are cholera.
Cholera is endemic to the region, and “it breaks out fast and it travels extremely fast,” he told reporters.
Doctors Without Borders has said other suspected cholera cases have been reported outside Beira in the badly hit areas of Buzi, Tica and Nhamathanda but the chance of spread in rural areas is smaller because people are more dispersed.
Mozambican officials have said Cyclone Idai destroyed more than 50 health centres in the region, complicating response efforts.
The United Nations has said some 1.8 million people need urgent help across central Mozambique’s sodden, largely rural region.