05 December 2008

National health emergency in Zim

Zimbabwe declared a national emergency over a cholera epidemic and the collapse of its health care system, and the government is seeking international help.

Zimbabwe declared a national emergency over a cholera epidemic and the collapse of its health care system, and state media reported the government is seeking more international help to pay for food and drugs to combat the crisis.

The failure of the southern African nation's health care system is one of the most devastating effects of the country's overall economic collapse. Facing the highest inflation in the world, Zimbabweans are struggling just to eat and find clean drinking water.

The United Nations says the number of suspected cholera cases in Zimbabwe since August has climbed above 12 600 with 570 deaths, because of a lack of water treatment and broken sewage pipes. Cholera is an infectious intestinal disease that is contracted by consuming contaminated food or water. Its symptoms include severe diarrhoea.

Still, residents are getting little help from the government, which has been paralysed since disputed March elections as President Robert Mugabe and the opposition wrangle over a power-sharing deal.

Treatment plants and medical staff needed
"Our central hospitals are literally not functioning," Minister of Health David Parirenyatwa said at a meeting of government and international aid officials, according to the state-run Herald newspaper. International aid agencies and donors must step up their response, said Matthew Cochrane, regional spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.

"This is about supporting the people of Zimbabwe," Cochrane said, adding that aid should include water treatment plants and more medical staff.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, among Mugabe's sharpest critics, agreed that Zimbabwe was facing a national emergency and nations must step in to help. "Mugabe's failed state is no longer willing or capable of protecting its people," Brown. "The international community's differences with Mugabe will not prevent us doing so – we are increasing our development aid, and calling on others to follow."

Britain has offered 3 million pounds and set aside a further 7 million in relief aid for Zimbabwe to provide medicine, fund basic health services and help prevent more cholera outbreaks.

International aid
The US State Department called the health situation in Zimbabwe worrisome. "We're obviously very concerned about the health situation in Zimbabwe, as well as the economic and political situation," said spokesman Robert Wood. "So it's incumbent on the Zimbabwean government to cooperate with the international community in trying to deal with some of these issues."

The US Agency for International Development said it would provide an additional $600 000 to help combat the cholera outbreak. The European Commission is providing more than $12 million for drugs and clean water and the International Red Cross shipped in more supplies Wednesday to fight the cholera outbreak.

The Herald said the government declared the state of emergency at Wednesday's meeting, and appealed for money to pay for food, drugs, hospital equipment and salaries for doctors and nurses.

Walter Mzembi, the deputy water minister, said his ministry has only enough chemicals to treat water nationally for 12 more weeks. High levels of cholera are common in the region, but Cochrane said it was hitting a population already weakened by hunger and poverty. The death toll could be much higher than the official figures, he added, because many deaths in rural areas were not being recorded at medical facilities. - (Sapa, December 2008)

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