aid groups say the cholera epidemic is spilling over Zimbabwe's borders into
neighboring countries. For example, the South African border town of Messina is
one of the hotspots where those groups are trying to stop the spread of the
Well over 500 deaths have been reported among the more than
12 thousand reported cases. However, the World Health Organization says those
figures may actually be too low.
Mathew Cochrane is communications manager for the
International Federation of the Red Cross in southern Africa and is based in
Johannesburg. Having recently returned from Messina, Cochrane spoke to VOA
English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua about the cholera problem along
the South African-Zimbabwe border at Messina.
"There's a sense I think among partners there
that it's under control to an extent. There've been about 400 cases, seven
deaths, including into this week. The response from the Department of Health
and from the Red Cross and some NGOs has been quite efficient. But the point is
that it should breed complacence because you've got an irregular flow of people
across the border. Because we've just found out that there's cholera in the
Limpopo River, which supplies water to a lot of people in Limpopo Province in
northern South Africa. We need to stay on top of this. We need to continue to
reach out to as many people as possible with education -- the information that
they need so they can be empowered to take control of their own destiny," he
The information includes basic hygiene education,
such as washing hands before preparing or eating food.
"I think we can be optimistic, but we need to be
planning for worst case scenario," he says.
Cochrane says the Red Cross is operating on both
sides of the border. "The Zimbabwe Red Cross has been active since the
beginning of this outbreak in August. And the International Federation of the
Red Cross, we have an office in Harare as well. So we've been providing a lot
of support to them in terms of…cholera kits, information materials, things like
that," he says.
However, in Zimbabwe there are fuel shortages,
making it difficult to reach rural areas. And the health, water and sanitation
infrastructure is "perhaps on the point of collapse…. This is about the people
of Zimbabwe. This is not about politics."
Cochrane warns that the situation is close to
being out of control, and he says that there's one commodity for which there's
"We need water. Water is the key. Even if people
have the information about what they can do…they still need clean water. It
sounds pithy, but you need clean water to drink clean water…. To that end, Red
Cross volunteers are distributing about 500,000 sachets of chlorine basically
and that can clean about 10 million liters of water. Our colleagues at the
International Committee of the Red Cross are providing thousands of liters of
clean water every week to some of the clinics and hospitals in and around
Harare," he says.
But Cochrane says dealing with the cholera
epidemic requires a multi-agency, international approach.
"We've got two or three weeks now before the
first floods of the season. And that's normally when we see the first cases of
cholera in this region. So that's very worrying. On the South African side, we
need to continue to provide the assistance to people who are crossing the
border in great numbers," he says.
South Africa's Health Minister recently
pledged medical assistance for Zimbabweans crossing the border into South Africa.