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Zimbabwe's Cholera Epidemic Hits Home


In Zimbabwe more than 400 people have died from an outbreak of cholera and the number of people infected is now believed to be more than 10,000 according to the United Nations. The Zimbabwean government has appealed for aid and blamed the country's problem on western sanctions. Peta Thornycroft has this report on one of the epidemic's victims, a civil rights activist who had survived many arrests on the streets of Harare.

Julia Chapeyama, 44, a single mother, did not tell her family she was ill, because she was so worried about her 13-year-old daughter, Cynthia, who was in the hospital with cholera.

When Chapeyama collapsed last week from the same disease, a friend took her in a wheel barrow to the nearest clinic where she died a few hours later.

Chapeyama was a street vendor and member of the pro-democracy group "Women of Zimbabwe Arise", known as WOZA. She had been arrested many times during peaceful demonstrations by the country's notoriously brutal security forces.

Chapeyama's friends are now caring for her two youngest daughters.

They believe she caught cholera by drinking water from a shallow well in the garden. The well was dug five weeks earlier because her house had been without city water for four months.

Chapeyama's 17-year-old daughter, Sandra, said sometimes the city water would come but only briefly and in the middle of the night.

"When we fetch water from the tap it will be green with some bacteria and if you put it in the bucket you can see there is dirt in the water," she said.

Cholera is a highly contagious form of diarrhea but is easily prevented with the provision of clean water and sanitation facilities and easily treated with rehydration medicines.

Humanitarian organizations say Zimbabwe is experiencing a major cholera epidemic because of crumbling infrastructure and services.

The United Nations Children's Fund,UNICEF, says the current death rate from the epidemic is four percent -- far higher than the normal death rate of one percent.

The epidemic has also spread to neighboring South Africa, Botswana and Mozambique.

UNICEF has provided hundreds of thousands of water purification tablets to residents of Harare. It is also drilling boreholes and distributing clean water in many of Harare's highly populated suburbs.

But experts worry that the summer rains, which are imminent, will worsen the cholera situation.

Community leaders say aid and education to combat the cholera epidemic have come primarily from western humanitarian agencies, private organizations such as WOZA and the Movement for Democratic Change party which opposes the ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe. They say the government health ministry has done little.

WOZA activist Salina Madukani, said the government's efforts to fight the epidemic have been restricted to making statements.

"Just words and hearing them talking on television but nothing, they are offering nothing," Madukani said.

Public services in most Zimbabwean towns have been deteriorating for more than a decade because of a lack of maintenance by the cash-strapped government.

The first democratically elected mayor of Harare, Elias Mudzure of the MDC, warned six years ago that the city's water distribution and sewage systems were in on the verge of collapse.

He was sacked by ZANU-PF one year after he was elected and the party took over the city's affairs.

ZANU-PF blames western "sanctions' for the cholera epidemic.

The European Union and United States have imposed targeted sanctions on senior Zimbabwean officials because of authoritarianism and human rights abuses.

However, international donors are feeding nearly one-half of the population and in recent years have provided most of the drugs used in government health services.

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