South Africa + 1 more

South Africa/Zimbabwe: Cholera crosses the border too

JOHANNESBURG, 19 November 2008 (IRIN) - Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic has crossed into South Africa, with four confirmed diagnoses in a total of 68 suspected cases in the border town of Musina, according to aid workers.

In the past four days 14 people have been hospitalised and two have died as the result of the outbreak: one a South African national who often travelled to Zimbabwe, and the second a Zimbabwean citizen.

Just across the border, in the Zimbabwean town of Beitbridge, 435 cases have been reported, and the overstretched local hospital has been making arrangements to transfer patients to South Africa, said John Shiburi, a South African Red Cross Society official in Musina. Zimbabwe's official newspaper, The Herald, reported on 19 November that 44 people have so far died in Beitbridge.

The cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe has flared up in several parts of the country, including the capital, Harare, and its satellite town of Chitungwiza, as a result of the collapse of water and sewerage services, worsened by uncollected refuse and the start of the rainy season.

Humanitarian officials have reported that a total of 2,893 people were infected by the waterborne disease between the beginning of August and mid-November, with at least 115 deaths.

Zimbabwe has activated the Civil Protection Unit, its national disaster response agency, to help open cholera clinics and provide public information to combat the epidemic. The UN children's agency, UNICEF, and the World Health Organisation (WHO) have also been assisting in the provision of drinking water.

South Africa's ministry of health has set up two cholera centres attached to the local hospital in Musina, and one earmarked for the show grounds, a field on the edge of town, which has become home to hundreds of asylum seekers and migrants awaiting documentation from the ministry of home affairs. Latrines and water taps are also reportedly to be provided.

"If [cholera] is not controlled we could have a major problem," Shiburi told IRIN. "The rains could make it much worse; those people [migrants] are staying out in the open."

He was concerned that blame for the cholera outbreak in Musina would be placed on Zimbabweans, already suffering local resentment over the numbers that cross the border each day to escape the economic and humanitarian crisis in their country. "[Cholera] public awareness campaigns should include the people of Musina, and avoid stigmatising the Zimbabweans."

Much of Zimbabwe has experienced erratic water supplies as unserviced equipment fails. The state-owned Zimbabwe National Water Authority has confirmed that it has been pumping untreated sewage into Harare's water supply dam, Lake Chivero; when supplies are accessible, the water coming out of the taps often emits a pungent smell.

Burst sewage pipes are often left unrepaired, resulting in raw sewage spilling into streets and people's homes. A ban on vending food in public has been imposed and the private digging of wells discouraged.

Cholera is a waterborne intestinal infection causing acute diarrhoea and vomiting; if left untreated, it can cause death from dehydration within 24 hours, yet according to the WHO, cholera is "an easily treatable disease" cured with rehydration salts.