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Health workers killed in tragic case of ignorance

Red Cross staff gives training to volunteers.
(Louise Sherwood/PlusNews)

The Mozambican Red Cross has halted its health work in the northern province of Nampula following the killing of two volunteers by the local community, who were convinced they were deliberately spreading cholera.

"Nampula has one of the highest [case loads] and deaths due to cholera, and our treatment and prevention strategy involved purifying contaminated wells and boreholes," Fernanda Teixeira, the national society's secretary-general, told IRIN.

"When one of the cholera victims in Quinga village died soon after chlorine had been used to decontaminate a well, the bereaved people in the local community got angry. They rushed to the conclusion that the Red Cross was spreading cholera in the wells, when they were in fact putting in chlorine," Teixeira explained.

The two Red Cross workers were killed in Nampula's Mogincual district, one of the poorest in the country, on 26 February. A week later, the cholera panic spread to the neighbouring districts of Angoche and Moma, and two policemen were killed as mobs attacked health posts. Seven Red Cross volunteers were hospitalized.

"The team of volunteers we have doing our work in villages like Quinga are local people who have stayed most of their lives in those villages. They are known in the communities they work," Teixeira said.

"Since the cholera riots broke out two weeks ago we have been forced to stop all our health work in Nampula until the situation returns to normal."

Mixed messages

According to Leonardo Antonio Chavane, national deputy director of the ministry of health, the violence was due to three main reasons: "First, it was a lack of information and knowledge; two, it showed a misunderstanding of government health messages in the community; and third, it could have been ... politically motivated."

Chavane said the challenge was to better communicate health messages. "It is telling us that we need to prioritize contact with local leaders. These are the most important people in terms of decision-taking at the local level. If government, health workers like the Red Cross, and local community leaders come together, we can succeed in sending our messages."

From the beginning of January to 10 March, Mozambique has recorded 11,883 cases of cholera and 112 deaths nationally. In the whole of 2008 there were 14,000 cases and 128 deaths, Chavane said. The wetter and poorer northern provinces are normally harder hit than the more developed south.


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: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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