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Red Cross Says Clean Water A Necessity to End Zimbabwe Cholera Epidemic


Medical 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 disease.

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 says.

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 constant demand.

"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.