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News Analysis: Malaria wreaks havoc in conflict-hit Oromia, at least 45 die in West Wollega zone alone

A health worker spraying anti-malaria chemical in Begii district, West Wollega, September 2023 (Photo: Begii District Communication Office/Facebook)

By Abdi Biyenssa @ABiyenssa

Nekemte, Oromia – Ongoing malaria outbreak, in conflict ravaged Western Oromia, particularly in the West Wollega and Kellem Wollega zones, has already caused significant harm on human lives including children, sources told Addis Standard. Despite the outbreak running for months, it only started getting attention last week when a social media relief campaign to support the victims was kicked off in light of the severity of the issue.

The UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest situation report, that since January 2023, a total of 774,519 malaria cases with 180 deaths were reported in 117 districts and 7 major towns in the Oromia region, with over 70 per cent of the cases reported from Western Oromia, specifically from West Wollega and Kellem Wollega zones.

A physician working in the West Wollega zone’s health office, who asked not to be named told Addis Standard that as of 12 October, 45 people have died of malaria in health facilities in the zone. A total of 222,268 people were tested and 128,150 (57.65%) were found to be malaria positive.

In a remote village called Lophi, in the severely affected Begii district, at least 14 households with up to nine family members each have perished due to malaria

Solan Bekele, a medical doctor working with a local NGO in the area told Addis Standard that in the face of rampant home deaths, it is likely that the death toll could be significantly higher. In a remote village called Lophi, in the severely affected Begii district, at least 14 households with up to nine family members each have perished due to malaria, Dr Solan said.

The malaria outbreak is also exacerbating other existing health problems, such as malnutrition and anemia, making it difficult for people to cope with the outbreak and increasing the risk of death, he added.

In the West Wollega zone, the outbreak is active in 20 districts and two towns. Babo Gambela, Begii, Qondala, Yubdo, Boji Coqorsa, Guliso, and Lalo Assabi are the most affected districts where health facilities are strained due to high number of patients. The outbreak is also widespread in Dale Sadi, Lalo Kile, Gawo Qebe, Dale Wabara, Canqa, and Hawa Galana districts of Kellem Wollega zone and many people have lost their lives, a local source told the Addis Standard.

Head of Begii hospital in Begii district Getinat Bayisa told Addis Standard that the hospital could only accommodate about fifty patients at a time, but currently admitted 80 malaria patients including by converting dining rooms into bedrooms.  

“Lack of critical food and shelter and frequent interruptions in medical supplies are the sources of the spread of epidemic diseases like malaria and cholera,” Getinet said.

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In addition, “there is a severe shortage of oxygen and medications. We experienced issues with the oxygen and oxygen cylinders. We were given fifty cylinders by the Ministry of Health, but we still need more,” said Getinet.

However, according to a statement posted on the facebook page of the Begii district communication office on 30 September 2023, all the necessary measures were being taken to control the outbreak including spraying anti-malaria chemicals, distribution of mosquito nets and providing necessary treatment for those who fell ill. 

The statement quoted Leta Benti, head of Begii health office as saying that the ongoing outbreak has been worsened as a result of destruction of all health facilities in the district and absence of basic health related works due to the security situation in the area.

Begii and its environs have been a scene of active fighting between the Oromo Liberation Army (OLA) and government forces over the past years. “Due to the security issue in the area, numerous medical facilities have been rendered out of service. Malaria patients are not getting the treatment they should receive,” Getinet said.

Concurring with Getinet, Dr Solan said due to ongoing conflict in the area health facilities including hospitals and clinics have been destroyed, hampering the distribution of medicines and medical supplies, and making it more difficult for civilians to access health services.

A research carried out by a local NGO and reviewed by Addis Standard revealed that 97 health posts have been looted and damaged in the West Wollega zone due to the security crisis whereas 64 health posts were burned

A research carried out by a local NGO and reviewed by Addis Standard revealed that 97 health posts have been looted and damaged in the West Wollega zone due to the security crisis whereas 64 health posts were burned. Six ambulances were looted, two ambulances were damaged, and four ambulances were burned. The research paper also indicated that 93 health posts were looted and damaged in Kellem Wollega, while 17 were burned.

Dr Solan said the impact of the insecurity goes beyond health and has crippled economic activities leaving locals vulnerable to the malaria outbreak. He noted that school dropout is increasing sharply as students struggle to cope up with poverty and the outbreak.

Motuma Adugna, a lawyer and resident of Qondala district told Addis Standard that a family in the district requires up to 45,000 birr to get malaria treatment, and some farmers are leasing their lands to get money. He added that health facilities in the area are totally dysfunctional, and locals are forced to travel 150 kilometers to buy medicine. Many doctors and health professionals have also fled the area, Motuma noted.

Furthermore, since 2020, commercial banks such as Commercial Bank of Ethiopia, Cooperative Bank of Oromia, Bank of Oromia, and Awash Bank have closed their branches in Begii and surrounding districts, and locals are traveling to neighboring Benishangul Gumuz region for banking services,” Motuma said.

According to Motuma, the government used to spray anti-malaria chemicals by helicopters, especially on the Dabus River which is the major malaria breeding ground in the Begii area, but due to the ongoing fight the spraying has been suspended for the past five years, Motuma noted.

Dr Solan urged immediate and scaled up intervention from the government and aid groups to control the malaria outbreak including monitoring cases and ensuring adequate supplies of malaria drugs and distribution of insecticide-treated mosquito nets. Mobile health clinics and other essential services to internally displaced people and patients should also be a priority, he added.

Motuma on his part said the security situation in the area must be given due attention to avert the looming health crisis.

According to the UN, the zonal health offices have cited multiple challenges for the malaria emergency response, which include low funding, limited medical supplies and logistics, limited partners’ presence, low community awareness for vector control, and security and access constraints. AS  

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