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Worst-case cholera scenario getting worse

A nurse taking care of a child cholera patient
(Paul Garwood/WHO)

Zimbabwe's worst-case cholera scenario, as predicted by the World Health Organisation, is likely to be surpassed within a few weeks and there are still about two months of the rainy season left.

In December 2008 the WHO said cholera cases could balloon to 60,000 before the rainy season ended in March 2009, but Gregory Härtl, spokesman for the organisation's Epidemic and Pandemic Alert and Response office in Geneva, told IRIN that as of 25 January, 53,306 cholera cases and 2,872 deaths had been recorded since the outbreak began in August 2008.

Cholera, an easily treatable waterborne disease, thrives in poor sanitary conditions and is expected to remain a feature until Zimbabwe's rainy season subsides.

The Herald, a state-owned daily newspaper, trumpeted in its 26 January edition that cholera was on the "retreat" in the capital, Harare, but cautioned that "Cholera is still present in the city, especially the southwestern suburbs, and any relaxation in our guard and our efforts will see the caseload explode."

However, Härtl said the conditions causing Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak remained in place. "The systemic underinvestment in water and sanitation infrastructure and the health system ... These conditions will not change overnight."

Zimbabwe's cholera death toll has now exceeded the number of people who have died from the disease in the entire African continent over several years: in 2001 (2,590 deaths), 2003 (1,884), 2004 (2,331) and 2005 (2,230), according to the WHO. Figures for 2006, 2007 and 2008 were not available.

Africa had 4,610 cholera deaths in 2000, and 4,551 in 2002.

Cholera spills in to the region

The disease has also spread to neighbouring countries. South Africa's Health Minister, Barbara Hogan, told a local television station that the country's cholera outbreak was a consequence of the spread of the disease from neighbouring Zimbabwe.

''Trans-border infections have been recorded and cholera is becoming endemic (recurrent throughout the year) in most affected countries''

According to local media reports, between 15 November and 24 January, 5,696 cases were diagnosed in South Africa and 36 people died.

The South African National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) notes on its website that the disease strain in both South Africa and Zimbabwe is Vibrio cholerae O1 serotype Ogawa biotype El Tor.

The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its regional update on 23 January 2009 that nine countries in the Southern Africa region were reporting cholera cases: Angola, Botswana, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

"Trans-border infections have been recorded and cholera is becoming endemic (recurrent throughout the year) in most of the affected countries," OCHA said.


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information:

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