Friday, December 26, 2008

Cholera in Zimbabwe and Beyond: The Perfect Storm

December 26, 2008

According to the latest report from the World Health Organization, the current cholera epidemic has killed 1,518 Zimbabwean victims. As of December 25th, 26,497 confirmed cases of cholera have been recorded, with more to come. And these numbers already are out of date.

While international aid agencies appeal – successfully – for money and supplies to fight the epidemic, Mugabe continues to resist the international community's attempts to assist victims. According to Zimbabwe's president, the cholera epidemic is a plot hatched by the United Kingdom to overthrow the government.

As we've reported previously, the Zimbabwe epidemic has spilled into neighboring countries, especially South Africa. Botswana and Zambia are on alert for cholera flare-ups, while Zimbabwe's remaining neighbor – Mozambique – is struggling to contain its own outbreak, which has claimed 31 lives (out of 1,585 confirmed cases) so far.

Africa's cholera problems, unfortunately, extend well beyond Zimbabwe and its immediate neighbors. Look for poverty, war, and natural disasters, and you will find cholera. In addition to Zimbabwe and Mozambique, WHO's cholera "hot spots" include Angola (10,186 cases and 232 deaths), Democratic Republic of Congo (357 new cases and 1 death in a two week period), Ethiopia (3,804 cases of "acute watery diarrhea", with 23 deaths) and Kenya (1,400+ cases and 13 deaths).

Other African countries that have been – or are still – battling cholera outbreaks include Guinea Bissau (14, 201 cases and 224 deaths), Namibia (29 cases and 3 deaths), Togo (100 cases and 1 death), Uganda (66 cases in a camp set up to house Congolese refugees), Nigeria (10 deaths) and Malawi (30+ victims and at least 8 deaths).

A seasonal disease, cholera's appearances often coincide with the rainy season. During dry periods, it lingers in the background, causing occasional illnesses in places such as the Philippines and India, where a young visitor from Hong Kong recently became infected.

Zimbabwe's rainy season extends from November to March. The UN estimates that more than 5 million of its residents are in need of food aid. 

No sanitation, no food, a dysfunctional government, and a cholera epidemic – all with the rainy season just beginning. A perfect recipe for a perfect storm.

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