Zimbabwe: Cholera death toll rises further

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By Heron Holloway, International Federation of Red Cross Red Crescent, in Harare, Zimbabwe

The number of cholera deaths in Zimbabwe continues to rise, with nearly half of all deaths occurring in communities or en route to receive medical attention. More than 2,000 people have now died of the disease and, as soon as an outbreak is controlled in one area, another erupts elsewhere.

Distances in Zimbabwe are huge, with transport and fuel hard to find. Patients arrive at makeshift cholera treatment centres in wheelbarrows, ox-drawn carts or on foot. Many have been travelling for two to three days. 

“The Red Cross Red Crescent has told the world that we will be there to help those most in need. We are doing exactly this in Zimbabwe. However, more work still needs to be done to reach vulnerable people, especially those in remote communities,” says Emma Kundishora, secretary general of the Zimbabwe Red Cross Society. 

Medical attention

Cephas John, 48, arrived at the Red Cross Red Crescent-built Zvishavane cholera treatment centre in a wheelbarrow. Suffering from constant diarrhoea and vomiting, he recognized the symptoms as cholera and sought medical attention. 

The centre, in Midlands province, was built quickly following a cholera outbreak in the area. The Norwegian and British Red Cross Emergency Response Unit (ERU) teams, working alongside Zimbabwe Red Cross volunteers, erected a tent, provided beds and medical supplies, dug drains, and installed latrines and hand washing facilities. This pattern has been repeated across three of the worst-affected areas – Mashonaland West, Manicaland and Midlands provinces. 

Red Cross Red Crescent teams ran a cholera awareness training course in Zvishavane with Zimbabwe Red Cross volunteers and they are now visiting households, going from village to village, speaking to people about cholera, providing information leaflets and hygiene packs. After only being open for one day, Zvishavane cholera treatment centre was overburdened as patients kept on arriving so the Red Cross Red Crescent erected an additional tent to increase capacity. 

Water sources

ERU teams are also implementing further preventative measures ensuring that water sources are functioning and providing clean water so that people do not have to resort to using unsafe water. For example, the German Red Cross ERU has installed four water tanks to reinforce the existing system at Whitewaters Dam that supplies Gweru, a city of 180,000, with 30 per cent of its water. 

The Red Cross Red Crescent will continue to tackle the current situation but more support will soon be needed. People in remote areas are most at risk as the rainy season gets underway, not only making access to medical facilities harder but increasing the risk of cholera spreading. A cholera treatment centre in Kadoma, Mashonaland West province, aided by the Spanish and Japanese ERU teams, saw a sharp increase in the number of cholera cases following heavy rains over the new year period. 

The Canadian Red Cross is supporting emergency humanitarian efforts in Zimbabwe and has sent two Canadian aid workers to join the ERU teams there.