Spectre of cholera still haunts Zimbabwe

The cholera infection rate in Zimbabwe is nearing the 100 000 mark in Africa’s worst outbreak in 15 years, aid agencies said on Tuesday.

The death rate was slowing down but the threat of cholera remains “very real”, says a report released by the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

“It is likely that at some point in the coming week, the 100 000th case of cholera will be officially reported in Zimbabwe.

So far, 98 309 cases have been reported, with some 4 283 deaths,” the report states.

The causes of the outbreak still needed to be addressed, the aid agencies warned.

“The outbreak was born largely as a result of the country’s almost entirely collapsed water, sanitation and health systems.

These issues have not been addressed,” the report states.

“Although infection rates have dropped, the spectre of cholera will not be defeated until the underlying issues are addressed.”

It said the “reluctant support” from donors had undermined the Red Cross Red Crescent cholera operation, “forcing a premature down-scaling of emergency operations”.

The agencies said an estimated 3,75-million Swiss francs was “urgently required” to rehabilitate 1 150 non-functional water sources, drill 263 bore holes and construct 3 755 latrines.

“Rates of infection and death have declined markedly over the past one or two months. The reasons for this are varied: the impact of the humanitarian response; the establishment in some areas of interim social services, and the natural life of any public health crisis.

“However, the eradication of cholera in Zimbabwe or the complete conclusion to this current epidemic is unlikely unless the underlying causes of the health crises are addressed,” the report says, adding that the situation is exacerbated by the Southern African country’s socioeconomic instability.

The cholera epidemic started in August last year and spread to surrounding areas in Botswana, Mozambique, South Africa and Zambia.

Hungriest country
The report also said Zimbabwe is the most food aid dependent country in the world. Also, nearly 55% of children who died of cholera were malnourished.

“Per capita, Zimbabwe is now the most food aid dependent country in the world.
The World Food Programme believes that seven million people are in need of food assistance—somewhere between 65% and 80% of the population,” the report states.

“The UN believes that 54% of all children who have died from cholera were malnourished, with 47% of the country’s population undernourished.”

The food crisis was caused by several factors including hyperinflation which disenfranchised many agriculture farmers, the report states.

“Zimbabwe’s fields are sown with substandard seed, scavenged often from granaries or from the side of the road. It is extraordinarily unlikely that the 2009 harvest will significantly surpass 2008—the worst in the country’s history,” says the report.

The country’s woes started escalating in 2000 when President Robert Mugabe’s government lost a referendum to the opposition Movement for Democratic Change and sanctioned an aggressive land reform programme in which the majority of white farmers lost their land to war veterans.

This resulted in a food crisis, exacerbated by drought and later by hyper-inflation. - Sapa, AFP

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