Zimbabwe declares state of emergency after cholera outbreak claims 20 lives

Burst sewers prompt closure of schools and ban on meat and fish sales in Harare as council requests fresh water supplies

Zimbabwe has declared a state of emergency after a cholera outbreak in the capital Harare killed 20 people and left more than 2,000 infected from contaminated drinking water.

The government has also shut schools and banned the sale of meat and fish by vendors in affected areas, said the new health minister, Obadiah Moyo. Police are expected to enforce the ban.

“We are declaring an emergency for Harare. This will enable us to contain cholera, typhoid and whatever is going on. We don’t want any further deaths,” Moyo said after touring a hospital treating patients.

The outbreak, which resulted from burst sewers in the high-density suburbs of Budiriro and Glenview, has since spread to four other provinces, according to local media. Harare’s city council has long struggled to supply water to all areas of the capital, with antiquated equipment and infrastructure often forcing residents to drink water from boreholes and open wells. Some households have been without water for nearly two decades.

To curb the spread of disease, the health ministry has urged the public to avoid unlicensed food premises and not to urinate or defecate in the open. The government has also begun sending public service messages by text message, local media have reported, with tips offered on how to avoid cholera and typhoid and when to go to the clinic.

Harare has requested drinking water from UN agencies and private companies, with the World Health Organization expected to help control the outbreak and possibly start a vaccination programme.

“Partners are already there and are establishing a cholera treatment centre,” WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told Reuters. “WHO is preparing material for patients care as well and is mobilising cholera experts.”

The crisis made headlines just days after 47 African governments pledged to end cholera outbreaks by 2030, with campaigners warning that governments need to “put their money where their mouth is” to curb the disease.

The pledge – which targets a 90% reduction in the number of cholera deaths by 2030 – would require nations to take evidence-based action to tackle outbreaks, including improved patient access to time-sensitive treatment and wider use of the oral cholera vaccine.

“Cholera is a symbol of inequity,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for Africa. “It’s an ancient disease, which has been eliminated in many parts of the world. Every death from cholera is preventable. We have the knowhow and today countries have shown that they have the will to do whatever it takes to end cholera outbreaks by 2030.”

Dan Jones, advocacy coordinator for policy and campaigns at WaterAid, said that target was “certainly feasible if there is a real step change in the investment the countries in the region put into prevention measures like water sanitation and hygiene”.

Jones said: “It should be a wake-up call to the countries in the African region. In some countries there has been a belated recognition as to how big this problem is. Now the question is whether they put their money where their mouth is.”

Cholera is a major global health concern: WHO estimates suggest there are up to 4m cases – and more than 140,000 deaths – each year.

Last year, more than 150,000 cholera cases, and more than 3,000 deaths, were reported in 17 countries in Africa. This year, eight African countries have been dealing with outbreaks.

Algeria recently suffered an outbreak for the first time in more than 20 years. West Africa’s Lake Chad Basin, which includes Nigeria, Niger, Mali and Cameroon, has suffered an abnormal spike in cases since late August.


Kate Hodal and Tobi Thomas

The GuardianTramp

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