Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Cholera still stalks Zimbabwe

It is likely that at some point in the coming week, the 100,000th case of cholera will be officially reported in Zimbabwe. So far, 98,309 cases have been reported, with some 4,283 deaths. The last time I posted on this topic, Zimbabwe was making news and the cholera crisis was top of the news agenda. Yet, in the interim three months, while Zimbabwe has faded as a news story cases of cholera have doubled and nearly 4'300 people have now died from a disease that is easily prevented.

100,000 cases: The spectre of cholera remains in Zimbabwe - is the name of a report issued today by the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society (ZRCS) and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC). It warns that although rates of infection have slowed down over the past months, serious risk remains.

“(The) eradication of cholera in Zimbabwe or the complete conclusion to this current epidemic is unlikely unless the underlying causes of the health crises are addressed,” the report states.

“Central to this outbreak remains the almost complete collapse of Zimbabwe’s basic water, sanitation and health infrastructure. Communities across the country are still without access to potable water and basic sanitation, and health facilities continue to be understaffed and under resourced.”

The issues that have driven this health crisis have not been addressed. Zimbabwe’s cholera crisis was born largely out of the country’s almost complete lack of functioning water and sanitation infrastructure. The emergency response was about mitigating these gaps. These efforts now need to be extended into the mid and long-term.

Genuine efforts must now be made to ensure that communities have access to basic amenities such as clean water and basic sanitation. The threat of cholera will not abate unless these fundamental, structural issues are addressed. Even if basic water and sanitation infrastructure was repaired, such a process would take many years. This gap needs to be bridged.

Complicating and Contributing factors

This outbreak is now the worst in Africa for almost 15 years. The previous worst was an outbreak in Zaire in 1994, where an estimated 12,000 people were killed by the illness. More recently, in 2006 and 2007, Angola experienced an outbreak of an estimated 80,000 cases.

But the cholera situation is but one of several severe humanitarian issues in the country. Zimbabwe is now, per capita, the country most dependent on food aid. The World Food Programme estimates that seven million people are now in need of food assistance. 

The country’s HIV and AIDS prevalence rate officially sits at 15.3 per cent. There is increasing anecdotal evidence that Zimbabwe’s once successful anti-retroviral roll-out has begun to regress (latest official figures estimated ART coverage of approximately 19 per cent). Hyper-inflation has seen distribution of these life-preserving drugs dry up in some areas, whilst the wide-spread food insecurity has contributed to an alarming increase in people defaulting on their treatment.

The Politics of Aid?

The deteriorating humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe coincides with ongoing political tensions and developments. Governments around the world are monitoring these situations, and global media continues to provide analysis.

But while the international community continues to wrestle with the politics of Zimbabwe, a Zimbabwean is infected by cholera every minute.

Calling governments to account and campaigning for change is the hallmark of a civil society. Yet this should not be confused with the mandate of organizations like the Red Cross, which is to provide aid on the basis of need, and need alone, without recourse to ideology, politics or difference.

In the coming days, Zimbabwe will record its 100,000th case of cholera. Already, almost 4,300 people have died from this entirely preventable and treatable illness. This isn’t about politics, it’s about basic and urgent humanitarian need. It has rarely been more vital that a neutral, independent and impartial humanitarian space be fostered and protected.

for more info please visit www.ifrc.org/zimbabwe



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