03 December 2008

Cholera crisis worsens

The water they have is contaminated, raw sewerage runs in the streets and the council has offered to bury cholera victims for free. And yet Zimbabweans keep going.

As children play near cesspools, their parents shake their heads at a public service announcement that drifts over the radio urging people to boil water before drinking it. It sounds like a taunt in a country where water and electricity supplies are off more than on.

This week, authorities turned off the taps in Zimbabwe's capital after the National Water Authority said it ran out of purifying chemicals and feared contaminated water would spread a cholera epidemic that has claimed hundreds of lives since August. The crisis is the latest chapter in the collapse of this once-vibrant nation under President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled for 28 years and refuses to leave office even though he and his party lost elections in March.

In Mabvuku, a suburb where residents have dug shallow wells in open ground, people say they know unboiled water can make them ill, but that they have no choice.

"We are afraid, but there is no solution, most of the time the electricity is not available so we just use the water," resident Naison Chakwicha told AP Television News.

Raw sewerage running ins treets
In another suburb, Mbare, Anna Marimbe traced the deaths of two children last week to stinking open drains where she said the kids played. Residents of the densely populated bedtown of Chitungwiza on Friday sued the National Water Authority in the High Court, saying they had been without running water for 13 months, causing cholera to surface, and leading to deaths.

The application describes "large pools of raw sewerage" in the streets of the suburb, where the first cholera cases were reported. Controlling the epidemic depends on providing clean water, which means also repairing bust water and sewage pipes as well as dilapidated pumping and purification equipment.

Harare is the epicentre of the cholera epidemic, which has spread across the country and spilled over its borders. The government has reported 473 deaths since August and a total of 11 700 people infected by Monday, according to Paul Garwood, spokesman for Health Action and Crises, the humanitarian arm of the UN World Health Organisation.

Garwood said that according to the official toll, 4% of people are dying of a disease that usually claims fewer than 1% of those infected and is easily treated with rehydration salts or an intravenous drip.

Doctors say the toll is nearer 1 000 dead, or 10% of victims, but nobody can count those dying at home and in the countryside without medical care. All the country's main hospitals have closed.

Cholera victims buried for free
Those continuing to operate can offer little care with no medicines and a shortage of staff whose monthly salary does not cover one day's bus fare to get to work.

The opposition-controlled Harare City Council is burying cholera victims for free because people cannot afford to buy graves. Zimbabwe's government, normally hostile to international aid agencies, is welcoming an initiative by several - including the UN Children's Fund, WHO and Doctors Without Borders - to provide emergency care as well as try to ensure safe water supplies.

Health officials, following the line of a government that is refusing to declare a national emergency, insisted the cholera outbreak was under control until five days ago.

Then, the best advice Health Minister David Parirenyatwa could offer was to urge people to stop shaking hands. "I want to stress the issue of shaking hands. Although it's part of our tradition to shake hands, it's high time people stopped shaking hands," he told The Herald, a state newspaper.

Zimbabweans finding ways to cope
The collapse of all services, including refuse collection, has turned the city into a playground for rats that threaten to spread other, more deadly, diseases.

Amid the disaster, Zimbabweans continue to find ways to deal with the crisis. Those who can afford it are sinking wells and boreholes. Others are buying water tanks and pumps, then paying $50 in foreign currency for a delivery of 2 000 litres of water. Most vendors in Zimbabwe today only accept US dollars or South African rand since the Zimbabwe dollar, once on a par with the greenback, seems to devalue with each hour that passes.

On Tuesday, it was trading for 1.8 million to the US dollar: that is after the central bank dropped 10 zeros from the local currency this year in an attempt to keep up with inflation last set officially at 231 million percent by July.

Even money sometimes can't buy water. One supplier told an AP reporter on Tuesday that he has a waiting list more than two weeks long. Those without foreign currency must turn to "water Samaritans" - suburban residents who have wells or boreholes and are allowing people to fill buckets and jerry cans for free. Some residents are charging for the privilege.

Lines of mainly women and children gather daily outside the homes of people with wells. But even that supply is not assured.

Rainy season on the way will make things worse
Parirenyatwa, the health minister, voiced the fears of many when he said the cholera epidemic likely will get worse with the onset of the rainy season, which lasts two or three months.

"What I am afraid of is that now that the rainy season has come, all the faeces lying in the bushes will be washed into shallow wells and contaminate the water," he said. – (Sapa, December 2008)

Read more:
Free coffins in a time of cholera
SA at low risk of Zim's cholera


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