Cholera in Zimbabwe: HelpAge partner responds

HelpAge International partner HelpAge Zimbabwe is responding to the cholera epidemic which is sweeping across the country, claiming scores of lives each day.

Since the beginning of November, some 1,000 people have died and more than 20,000 cases have been recorded. The water-borne disease is spreading fast due to a lack of clean water, soap, and access to treatment. Zimbabwe's health, water and sanitation systems have collapsed over recent months, and many hospitals and clinics are now closed.

Older people are particularly vulnerable as many cannot travel long distances or stand in queues for long periods to collect clean water. Older people also have lower immune defenses, making them more susceptible to contracting cholera.

Promoting hygiene awareness

HelpAge Zimbabwe has distributed water purification tablets, soap and information on hygiene and sanitation to around 1400 recipients, most of them older people, in the major towns of Harare, Bulawayo and Chiredzi. It is also providing health and hygiene awareness training to community volunteers.

Nesta Hatendi, Regional Representative for Africa at HelpAge International, says:

"The situation is extremely serious and imminent rains are likely to make things worse, particularly in urban areas. If nothing is done to contain the outbreak then the number of deaths could more than quadruple over the next few weeks.

"The provision of water purification tablets and reaching people with messages on hygiene are absolutely vital to curbing the spread of the disease and this is where our efforts will continue to lie."

Food shortages and hyperinflation

The cholera epidemic is the latest in a string of crises to hit Zimbabwe. Chronic food shortages as the result of a failed summer harvest mean that some 5.1 million people are expected to need urgent food assistance in early 2009.

Hyperinflation has also left many Zimbabweans unable to afford food. A new Z$ 500 million banknote issued last week is enough to buy just seven loaves of bread. This presents a challenge for older people who may find it particularly difficult to deal in such high figures. Many stores now also trade only in foreign currency, which older people are less likely to have access to.

Older people who are caring for orphans and sick relatives are placing their needs above their own.

One project worker said: 'Older people suffer. They don't think of feeding themselves first. They go without and feed the four or five children in their care.'

HelpAge Zimbabwe continues to distribute food to older people in Harare and Manicaland provinces and is supporting institutional feeding programmes in old people's homes and orphanages in collaboration with the World Food Programme (WFP).