Cholera Grips Zimbabwe's Capital

Valérie Batselaere/MSF
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MSF teams react to cholera outbreak in Harare

In Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, MSF is responding to a major outbreak of cholera, which the local Ministry of Health has declared “the biggest ever in Harare.” MSF has set up cholera treatment centers (CTC) in Budiriro Polyclinic and Harare Infectious Diseases Hospital, where 500 patients have been treated to date and, on average, 38 new patients are admitted every day.

In Zimbabwe’s capital Harare, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is responding to a major outbreak of cholera, which the local Ministry of Health has declared “the biggest ever in Harare.” MSF has set up cholera treatment centers (CTC) in Budiriro Polyclinic and Harare Infectious Diseases Hospital, where 500 patients have been treated to date and, on average, 38 new patients are admitted every day. About 78 percent of the patients come from two densely populated suburbs in the southwest of Harare— Budiriro and Glen View—which have a combined population of approximately 300,000 people. The outbreak has also affected people from the neighboring suburbs of Mbare, Kambuzuma, Kwanzana, and Glen Norah. Up to 1.4 million people are endangered if the outbreak continues to spread.

Since they were asked to assist with the outbreak in Harare, MSF has been providing human, medical, and logistic resources at both CTCs. MSF’s growing team is comprised of over 40 national staff nurses, logisticians, chlorinators, and environmental health workers. The latter perform an important role in reducing the spread of cholera in the community, by disinfecting the homes of those affected, following up with contacts of patients, and supervising funerals, where the traditional practice of body washing, followed by food preparation and eating without proper hand washing, is a recognized factor in the spread of cholera.

Medical Teams are Overwhelmed

MSF water and sanitation officer, Precious Matarutse, comments on the situation: “At Budiriro CTC things are getting out of hand. There are so many patients that the nurses are overwhelmed. In the observation area, one girl died sitting on a bench. The staff is utilizing each and every available room and still in the observation area patients are lying on the floor. A man came to the clinic yesterday for treatment. His wife had just died at home and that is what made his relatives realize this is serious, and they brought the man to the clinic. They wanted to know what to do with the wife’s body. People are concerned about catching cholera from others. Health education must be intensified to inform the population.”

The challenges MSF teams face in the CTCs are manifold. Vittorio Varisco, MSF logistician, describes the struggle: “It is a constant challenge to keep up with increasing patient numbers. We are running out of ward space and beds for the patients. Today patients at the Infectious Diseases Hospital are lying outside on the grass and we are setting up tents with additional beds as an overflow for the wards.” MSF doctor Bauma Ngoya explained how vital human resources are in order to effectively treat patients and contain the outbreak: “Patients need constant supervision to ensure adequate hydration, without which they will die. As patient numbers continue to increase we must continue to recruit and train nursing staff.”

A New Urgency

Cholera is no new phenomenon in crisis-shaken Zimbabwe. In some of the rural areas of the country cholera is endemic and occurs every year. However, until recent years cholera was relatively rare in urban areas of the country where treated, piped water and flush toilets exist in most homes. With the ongoing economic crisis and the constantly deteriorating living conditions these urban areas are increasingly affected. The disease is water-borne and transmitted by the oral-fecal route; hence it thrives in unsanitary conditions. Run-down infrastructure, burst sewage pipes and water cuts are mainly responsible for the outbreak, as they force people to dig unprotected wells and to defecate in open spaces. During the rainy season from November to March, heavy rains effectively flush standing sewage into unprotected wells. The fact that the recent outbreaks of cholera have commenced before the rains, is a clear indication of the deteriorating sanitary conditions and shortage of clean water, and a worrying precursor to the rainy season.