Cholera kills 120 people in Zimbabwe

by Patricia Mpofu

HARARE -- Cholera has killed 120 Zimbabweans since January and more deaths could occur before year-end unless authorities acted urgently to improve sanitation and water supplies in cities and towns, a doctors' organization said Friday.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) blamed the outbreak of cholera -- rare in Zimbabwe only nine years ago - on broken down public infrastructure, the result of years of unprecedented economic decline and political turmoil in the country.

The group accused President Robert Mugabe's government of grossly underestimating the impact of infrastructure breakdown on public health and criticized the administration for apparently taking a back seat while UN agencies and other relief groups took the lead to combat cholera outbreaks in the country's rotting ghettoes.

"120 cholera-related deaths have been cumulatively recorded this year including cases from earlier outbreaks between February and August in Manicaland, Mashonaland Central, Mashonaland East and Masvingo," the ZADHR said in a statement.

It said there had also been outbreaks of the disease between September and October in the Harare suburbs of Dzivarasekwa, Kuwadzana Extension, Mabvuku, Highfield and at Chikurubi prison. Other outbreaks in recent weeks were recorded in Chitungwiza, Chinhoyi and Kariba.

The ZADHR said the state of decay in most cities and towns were ideal conditions for the spread of cholera, warning that unless conditions in cities were improved drastically the disease could become endemic across the country especially with the coming of the summer rains.

The group said: "Water supply is irregular or completely absent in most urban areas, burst sewage pipes continue to be left unattended and there is a lack of refuse collection. These factors create ideal conditions for the outbreak and spread of diseases such as diarrhoea, including its deadly forms of cholera and dysentery."

Health Minister David Parirenyatwa, who is a trained doctor, said his department was on high alert and that it had dispatched teams across the country to monitor and treat cholera.

Zimbabwe's recession marked by the world's highest inflation of 231 million percent, has hastened the deterioration of key infrastructure needed for economic activity and public health such as adequate power and water supplies.

The public health sector -- once one of the best in Africa -- has been hardest hit by the economic crisis with the government short of cash to import essential medicines and equipment, while the country has suffered the worst brain drain of doctors, nurses and other professionals seeking better opportunities abroad.