Zim cholera crisis hits other countries

Clare Nullis

Clare Nullis

Three makeshift tents in the hospital gardens of this gritty frontier town contain the most recent and unwelcome by-product of Zimbabwe's destruction - cholera.

In the past two weeks nearly 200 Zimbabweans have been treated for the infectious diarrheal disease at Musina's hospital, and about 1 000 more have received life-saving rehydration treatment directly at the South African border.

They are the lucky ones. Most do not make it as far as the border.

The United Nations said on Tuesday that more than 50 cholera deaths were reported in Zimbabwe in the past day alone, bringing the toll to 366 since August, with most in the last two weeks.

It said 8 887 cases have now been recorded and the disease has spread to more than half of the country and spilled over into South Africa and Botswana.

Zimbabwe's Doctors for Human Rights said on Tuesday that hundreds more Zimbabweans are dying at home, uncounted and untreated as the country's health system has collapsed.

The group's chairman, Douglas Gwadziro, told AP Television News that figures point to "a 10 percent death rate of those that have been affected by cholera".

Going on the UN's figure last week of about 6 000 infected, Gwadziro said "in the region of 500 to 600 of those have succumbed to cholera".

Amid charges that Zimbabwe's government is deliberately lowering casualty figures, Gwadziro said the under-reporting could reflect a lack of awareness about people dying at home.

The worst is yet to come as the rainy season sets in with a vengeance. Rain is lashing the capital, Harare, and other parts of the country, washing raw sewage through the streets and into the drinking system. Many parts have been without proper drinking water for two weeks.

Cholera is spread by contaminated water and food. Zimbabwe's outbreak is blamed on years of neglect that have water treatment plants collapsing and sewage pipes bursting.

The outbreak is hard to contain. Hospitals are closing because they cannot pay staff and others have no medication or any way to help patients.

The country has been in limbo most of the year over disputed presidential elections.

In September President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's leader since independence in 1980, and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai agreed to share power but they have since been unable to agree on how to divide up cabinet posts.

At Musina Hospital Owen Mugari counts his blessings. With a drip attached to his arm, and bottles of clean water close to hand, an unthinkable luxury in his homeland, Mugari says he is regaining strength by the hour.

"I'm really happy with the treatment," he says. "In Zimbabwe, there is nothing, nothing," says the 29-year old casual farm labourer.

South African hospital authorities are setting up new beds in anticipation of more arrivals, but say they can cope. As long as people are treated early enough, cholera is quick, easy and cheap to treat with rehydration salts.

Three people have died so far at the hospital, says spokesman Edward Malema, because they arrived too late. - Sapa-AP.