MSF: Zim cholera crisis deteriorates

The Zimbabwean cholera epidemic, which has now claimed about 3 400 lives, is only part of the country’s public health crisis, humanitarian NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) said on Tuesday.

“It is only the most visible manifestation of a much broader problem in the whole country,” MSF International president Dr Christophe Fournier told reporters in Johannesburg. “The public health system has collapsed.”

MSF head of mission to Zimbabwe Manuel Lopez said that in Zimbabwe’s “once-lauded health system” there was a lack of supplies, staff and clinics.

People who were ill were unable to travel to the clinics that were still open.
Many health professionals were also no longer able to travel to work because their salaries were sometimes less than travel costs.

“Only in [Zimbabwe] have I seen this kind of collapse in the public health system in the absence of conflict,” said Fournier.

This collapse had affected the treatment of HIV and diseases.

It had particularly affected rural areas, and this was worsening the cholera epidemic there.

“Cholera has moved to the rural areas, where there is a lack of awareness about cholera and no access to public health facilities,” said Lopez.

The cholera outbreak, which began last year, had started in urban areas. It had since moved to rural areas where many public health facilities had closed. Those that had remained open were either poorly supplied, poorly staffed or were charging fees for their services that were outside the means of most rural Zimbabweans.

“People die because they do not have the money for treatment,” said Lopez. He said this shift of the epidemic from urban to rural areas was the reason the past two weeks had been the most severe.

“We are at a very high peak and we don’t know what’s going to happen in the future,” he said.

International aid groups were having difficulty in dealing with cholera in the countryside. When the outbreak was in the cities, aid workers and supplies could easily reach afflicted people.

Getting help to rural areas had been impeded by poor roads as well as government bureaucracy.

Lopez said Zimbabwean regulations made it difficult for MSF doctors to work in areas without local supervision. The cost of work permits and visas was also very high.

MSF said the international community should treat Zimbabwe as an emergency and provide aid regardless of political conditions.

“Nutrition and food has become a political issue,” said Lopez. “The health of the people is not political. You can’t play games with these things.”

MDC official charged
Meanwhile, a Zimbabwe court on Tuesday charged a senior Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) official over a plot involving terrorism and insurgency, just days after the party joined a unity government with President Robert Mugabe.

Roy Bennett was also charged with banditry and violating the Immigration Act for leaving and returning to the country illegally, in a case that has raised doubts about the credibility of the new government.

Zimbabwe’s MDC may be reluctant to quit the new unity government formed to lead the country out of economic crisis, despite Bennett’s arrest, a senior party official said on Monday.

Bennett, who was meant to be deputy agriculture minister in the new administration, was arrested before new ministers were sworn in on Friday.

He had been living in exile in South Africa after fleeing Zimbabwe two years ago because police wanted to question him in connection with the discovery of an arms cache.—Sapa, Reuters

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