27 May 2009

Zim still faces cholera threat: Red Cross

Zimbabwe is on the brink of having 100 000 infections of cholera, a preventable disease that has already killed 4 283 people there and remains a serious threat.


Zimbabwe is on the brink of having 100 000 infections of cholera, a preventable disease that has already killed 4 283 people there and remains a serious threat, the Zimbabwean Red Cross and its partners said on Tuesday.

The damaged water and sewage systems that triggered the recent outbreak in the southern African country remain neglected, and stand to cause another public health crisis, they said in a new report.

"Communities across the country are still without access to potable water and basic sanitation," said the report released by the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). "The threat of cholera remains very real."

Looking for Western donors
Zimbabwe's power-sharing government, formed in February, is trying to raise billions of dollars from Western donors. The government has launched a 100-day plan to restore the shattered economy, and set targets on political reforms.

The 100 000th cholera case is expected to occur within a week or two, and highlights Zimbabwe's huge infrastructure needs after a decade of economic collapse and acute political tension.

In December, the World Health Organisation said that 60 000 people would be infected with the diarrhoeal disease in its "worst-case scenario" for Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak.

That benchmark was quickly passed and aid groups have been working to distribute clean water, purification tablets and rehydration salts to help Zimbabweans fight off the disease that spreads through contaminated water and food.

Infection, death rate declines
Infection and death rates have declined sharply in the past two months, but the cholera epidemic is likely to stretch on for some time, according to the IFRC, whose 186 national chapters make up the world's largest aid network.

Although it only received 45% of the $9 million it sought at the height of the outbreak, the Red Cross is asking donors for another $3.4 million to build latrines, drill bore holes and repair existing water sources to protect Zimbabweans from cholera and other water-borne scourges.

"We are in a situation today where some 4 300 people have died from a disease which is preventable," spokesman Paul Conneally told a news briefing in Geneva, where the IFRC has its global headquarters.

Angola, Sudan, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, Liberia, South Africa and Madagascar have all had large outbreaks of cholera in the past decade, and Iraq had more than 4 000 infections last year. The WHO has said those countries were able to avoid the high death rate seen in Zimbabwe because their health and water systems were able to respond appropriately.

Given that Zimbabwe is the country most dependent on food aid in the world, and has a very high HIV/Aids infection rate at around 15%, the IFRC's Conneally said it was critical to shield poor rural dwellers from infections that could exacerbate pressures in the fragile country.

"All of these factors are interlinked," he said. – (Laura MacInnis/Reuters Health, May 2009)


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