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Zimbabwe struggles to contain spread of cholera outbreak

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In a dire public health crisis, Zimbabwe is grappling with a relentless spread of cholera, raising fears of a recurrence of the catastrophic 2008 outbreak that triggered a “national emergency.”

This perilous outbreak has now infiltrated all ten provinces of the country, with the most severe surges noted in the southeastern regions of Masvingo and Manicaland, emerging as the epicenter of the crisis.

Government statistics reveal a grim picture, with over 100 lives claimed and 5,000 individuals infected by cholera since the onset in February. In response to this dire situation, the Zimbabwean government has implemented stringent measures to curb the rampant transmission of the disease in vulnerable areas. Funerals are now restricted to a maximum of 50 attendees, with prohibitions against handshakes and serving food during these gatherings.

Furthermore, authorities are strongly discouraging visits to open-air markets, unlicensed vendors, and outdoor church camps where sanitation conditions are severely lacking. Cholera, a waterborne disease primarily contracted through contaminated food or water, spreads rapidly in Zimbabwe due to the nation’s poor sanitation infrastructure and limited access to clean water.

Many Zimbabweans, particularly those in remote villages, endure months without access to tap water, leaving them with no choice but to draw water from unsafe wells or rivers. The alarming presence of raw sewage spilling from damaged pipes and accumulating refuse further escalates the risk of cholera transmission.

Residents emphasize that their struggles to obtain clean water and water-purification supplies have intensified recently, increasing their vulnerability to the disease. Answer Nyamukondiwa, a resident of Buhera, the hardest-hit city located 250 kilometers from the capital, voiced his concerns, stating, “The cholera problem is not new. We’ve had it for a while, but there used to be health workers who would move around communities distributing water purification tablets that we could use to treat open wells. That isn’t happening anymore.”

Many residents lament the deterioration of safe boreholes, narrow water wells relied upon by 38 percent of the population. A woman in the eastern town of Murambinda pleaded, “We do not have enough boreholes. There is so much pressure on the few boreholes serving big villages. When these boreholes break down, people have no option [other] than to fetch water from the contaminated rivers. We need more boreholes. We are getting cholera when we drink contaminated water from the rivers.”

Acknowledging the infrastructure shortcomings, Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa has unveiled plans to drill more boreholes, targeting each of the country’s 35,000 villages within the next year. The current cholera crisis in Zimbabwe stands as the most severe since 2008, when the nation witnessed a nationwide outbreak resulting in the government declaring a “national emergency” after the loss of approximately 4,000 lives.

Cholera also persists as a recurring issue in neighboring southern African states, including Malawi, South Africa, and Mozambique. Collectively, these nations, along with Zimbabwe, have tragically witnessed the deaths of 1,000 citizens due to cholera since late 2022.

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