A multinational fight: Cholera outbreak in southern Africa
Doctors have criticized a lack of awareness about preventive measures among communities.
WASHINGTON: In Brondo in the southeastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), accessing clean water is essential for survival. Despite enjoying rich rainfall for much of the year, the region lacks proper water treatment. For residents like Betty, access to sanitation and treated water therefore is extremely limited.
“We drink the unclean water. There are overflowing septic tanks and rainwater that brings the city’s garbage into the houses,” Betty told DW. Health experts have issued renewed warnings about surging cholera cases in the region. The disease is spreading rapidly in Zimbabwe, Malawi, Mozambique and the DRC, with neighboring countries keeping a watchful eye on their borders.
Yet most long-term remedies against the outbreak are to be found at the local level. In Zimbabwe, the situation has reached a critical point. Since the beginning of the outbreak, more than 22,000 cases and over 450 deaths have been reported.
Doctors have criticized a lack of awareness about preventive measures among communities. “People are not keen on treating borehole water,” Michael Vere, an epidemiologist at Harare Central Hospital, said in reference to water extracted through narrow shafts bored into the ground. “They assume that borehole water is safe, but the water is not safe.”
In Zimbabwe’s capital, the issue is further exacerbated by the population density in certain areas, such as the Highfield suburb. Communities are now facing a shortage of safe playing areas for children, as raw sewage continues to flow in backyards and on the streets. Chiedza Zulu, a concerned mother of four, summarized the fear that has been gripping the community.
“Cholera cases are cropping up around us. We now keep oral hydration salts in case we contract the disease. Sewage is flowing, and refuse is not being collected. Flies, rodents, and mosquitoes are plenty here. This is unbearable,” she told DW.
Vere emphasized the importance of addressing inadequate water and sanitation conditions to protect local residents. “We encourage people to treat all water, regardless of source,” he said. With suspected and confirmed cases reported in 61 out of 64 districts, Zimbabwe’s government has now taken action to address the outbreak head-on. Health authorities have set up 153 cholera treatment centers and have initiated a cholera vaccination campaign.
However, a global shortage of the cholera vaccine has been hampering Zimbabwe’s efforts to vaccinate a large portion of its population. Douglas Mombeshora, Zimbabwe’s Health and Child Minister, said the vaccine was not a quick fix for ending the cholera crisis.
“The vaccine is not an end to cholera,” Mombeshora told reporters. He added that it rather amounted to “a temporary response which should be complemented with tangible investment in safe water provision.”
According to a UNICEF report, Zimbabwe is facing a shortage of investment in water and sanitation infrastructure. As a result, only about one in three households have access to treated water sources and sanitation.
Mozambique appears to be in a similar situation as Zimbabwe, with around 40,000 cholera cases and 151 resulting fatalities reported so far. However, Mozambique’s numbers reach as far back as September 2022, marking a slow march towards endemic proportions. Similarly, the DRC is also currently grappling with a longer-lasting cholera outbreak.