South Africans are getting more nervous by the day as reports of escalating number of cholera victims of neighbouring Zimbabwe arrive.
What's more, scores of Zimbabweans are crossing the border into South Africa for medical assistance. Zimbabwe's economical crisis has lead to a breakdown in the country's health infrastructure and is unable to deal with the cholera outbreak.
There have been reports of mounting concern among South Africans that cholera-infected refugees may spread the disease across the border, leading to an outbreak on this side. One blogger writes: "I did not support xenophobia, but if it will help dealing with the influxes of unexplainable diseases then bring back xenophobia."
Dr Sebastian de Haan from Medi-Travel International debunks this concern. "Cholera occurs in areas with poor sanitation and hygiene and it is highly unlikely that it would spread over great distances," says De Haan.
Cholera is a water-borne disease and is spread through contaminated water systems. The only other way to contract cholera is to come into contact with an infected person's bodily fluids – the disease causes vomiting and acute diarrhoea, and only people that come into close contact with these fluids could become infected – usually a member of the household.
"So you could sit next to an infected person on a plane or a bus and it is highly unlikely to be infected," agrees Dr Marcus Brauer.
Cholera not unique to Zim
"We should keep in mind that cholera already exists in South Africa – usually in rural areas where people don't have access to safe potable water - and it is not unique to Zimbabwe," says Brauer.
He suggests that people visiting or living in an area near the outbreak should ensure that their drinking water is safe by boiling it or adding purification tablets before drinking or using the water for cooking purposes. "Make sure food is freshly cooked and don’t swim in water sources, like rivers or dams, that might be infected."
Latest reports state that a water affairs official has confirmed that water sources around Musina and Beit Bridge in Limpopo were tested and are free of cholera.
High-risk visitors, such as health care personnel, can have themselves vaccinated against cholera.
According to the latest reports the cholera outbreak has claimed the lives of 366 people and 8 887 cases have been reported. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) "the outbreak is not yet under control", and organisations such as the World Health Organisation (WHO), the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), Doctors Without Borders (MSF) as well as the South African government have come to Zimbabwe's assistance.
- (Wilma Stassen, Health24/Sapa, November 2008)
Zim patients coming to SA