Cholera: Zimbabwe strikes again after the 2008 crisis

Written by Dr. Florence Akano

Zimbabwe is once again grappling with a devastating cholera outbreak that has spread across all 10 of its provinces, raising fears of a repeat of the catastrophic 2008 epidemic that pushed the nation into a state of “national emergency.” According to government estimates, this resurgence of the water-borne disease has already claimed the lives of more than 100 people and infected over 5,000 individuals since its emergence in February.

The most alarming spikes in cholera cases have been recorded in the southeastern provinces of Masvingo and Manicaland, making this region the epicentre of the crisis. To curb the spread of the disease, the Zimbabwean government has implemented a series of restrictive measures.

Funerals, a common gathering point for Zimbabweans, are now limited to a maximum of 50 people, and attendees are forbidden from shaking hands or serving food at these gatherings. Additionally, authorities are strongly discouraging people from frequenting open-air markets, unlicensed vendors, or outdoor church camps where sanitation is often lacking.

Cholera is a highly contagious water-borne disease that spreads rapidly in Zimbabwe, primarily due to the nation’s poor sanitation infrastructure and limited access to clean water. Many Zimbabweans, particularly those in remote villages, go for months without access to tap water, compelling them to draw water from unsafe wells or rivers. The contamination risk is further exacerbated by raw sewage spilling from damaged pipes and the accumulation of refuse in various areas.

As one resident of Buhera, the hardest-hit city located 250 kilometres (155 miles) from the capital, expressed, “The cholera problem is not new. We’ve had it for a while, but there used to be health workers who would move around communities distributing water purification tablets that we could use to treat open wells. That isn’t happening anymore.”

Residents have also lamented the deterioration of safe boreholes, which approximately 38% of the population relies on for their water supply. A woman in the eastern town of Murambinda lamented, “We do not have enough boreholes. There is so much pressure on the few boreholes serving big villages. When these boreholes break down, people have no option [other] than to fetch water in the contaminated rivers. We need more boreholes. We are getting cholera when we drink contaminated water from the rivers.”

Acknowledging the country’s infrastructure shortcomings, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa has announced plans to drill more boreholes for each of the country’s 35,000 villages in the next year. Despite these measures, the current cholera crisis is the most severe since 2008, when approximately 4,000 civilians lost their lives in a nationwide outbreak, prompting the government to declare it a “national emergency.”

Cholera is not unique to Zimbabwe; it is a recurring issue in neighbouring southern African states as well, including Malawi, South Africa, and Mozambique. Collectively, these countries and Zimbabwe have seen over 1,000 of their citizens succumb to the disease since late 2022. The collective efforts to combat cholera in the region remain a priority as these countries grapple with the recurring menace of the disease.

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Dr. Florence Akano

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