Mutare, Zimbabwe — After years in which the disease presented only a limited threat, this city in eastern Zimbabwe is seeing a hike in malaria deaths, with more than 30 recorded in 2017, city officials say.
They, and residents, blame the resurgence in part on unusually wet weather, following years of drought in much of the country, and on warming conditions linked to climate change.
Jeremiah Mutindori, a trader in the city's Hobhouse area - one of those badly affected by mosquitoes - said he was convinced changing weather conditions were to blame.
"I think it's because we now have abundant stagnant waters everywhere as a result of the heavy rains received last year. Our winter seasons seem to be shorter and warmer than before," said Mutindori, a father of three.
He said he was particularly worried his 5-month-old daughter might contract malaria.
In 2016, Mutare - Zimbabwe's fourth-largest city, on the country's eastern border with Mozambique - recorded only one malaria death. But in 2017 the death toll rose to 31, said Spren Mutiwi, the Mutare city spokesman.
The city was declared a malaria zone in February 2017, city officials said.
Mutiwi said the city had stepped up an indoor insecticide spraying effort alongside the Ministry of Health and Child Care, focused on particularly affected parts of the city.
"Deaths (from malaria) are disturbing," he said, and "frantic efforts are being carried out by the city to eradicate malaria once and for all and revert to non-malaria status".
MORE RAIN, MORE MOSQUITOES
But Washington Zhakata, director of the Climate Change Management Department in the Ministry of Water Resources, Development and Climate in Zimbabwe, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that climate change was playing a role in the resurgence of the disease.
As temperatures gradually rise, more areas of the country are becoming good breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes, he said.
Also, "malaria has a strong relationship with rainfall", he said. "Flash flooding that is now very common in some places, together with the generally high temperatures being observed, create conducive environments for breeding of malaria mosquitoes."
A report by the U.S. Agency for International Development said malaria was a major health problem in Zimbabwe with almost half of the population at risk.
"Its epidemiology varies greatly in the different regions of the country, ranging from year-round transmission in the lowland areas to endemic-prone areas in the highlands," the report said.
Each year thousands of people in Zimbabwe contract the disease, which is caused by a parasite transmitted by the bite of females of a certain species of Anopheles mosquitoes.
The country's Health Minister, David Parirenyatwa, said eliminating the disease in Zimbabwe would require collaboration with neighbouring malarial countries, including Mozambique and Zambia, according to a statement from the ministry.
A MOVING THREAT
Joe Brew who has done extensive research on the economics of malaria in southern Africa as part of the Trans Global Health programme, which focuses on health threat to the world's vulnerable, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation that when climate conditions change, mosquito habitats and behaviours also change, making keeping up with the threat difficult.
"Malaria and other mosquito-borne illnesses will stop being a problem in some areas, but it also means that the disease may emerge or re-emerge in places which are not familiar with them, whose surveillance systems are not equipped for handling them," Brew said.
Mutiwi said the peak period for malaria cases in Mutare was between February and March, although sporadic cases start as early as November.
Despite expected heavy rains this summer, Mutiwi said he was however optimistic the city's programme to spray pesticides indoors in most residential areas would reduce the spread of malaria this year.
Though there is year-round transmission of malaria in some parts of the country, Mutiwi said the disease was still only a major problem in Mutare during the rainy season.
"But we believe that the effects of climate change cannot be ignored (and) have some contributions" to the spread of malaria, he said.
- Reporting by Andrew Mambondiyani; editing by Laurie Goering