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Zimbabwe Cholera Cases Surge; Malaria Rises as Concern

The World Health Organization says Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic is a long way from being contained. New figures are out on the epidemic – and they show a big jump in recent days in the number of deaths and overall cases.

Dr. Claire-Lise Chaignat is the head of the World Health Organization’s Global Taskforce on Cholera in Geneva.

“The last update we had we had a cumulative total of 48,623 cases and 2,755 deaths, with an overall fatality rate of 5.7 percent. Last week, we had in fact a lot of cases. We had 6,466 cases and 420 deaths reported from 10 provinces and 87 districts in Zimbabwe,” she says.

Recently, Chaignat had seen signs of stabilization in the epidemic. But that was before the current surge in cases. She says, “Cholera epidemics are always very dynamic. And in fact, for sure, certain areas that had been affected at the beginning of the epidemic are now declining in incidents. That’s the case, for example, in Harare and Chitinquiza, with a clearly declining trend. But, nevertheless, as I mentioned, the cholera epidemic is dynamic and is moving across the country. And we have other areas like Mashonaland Central, where we have now an increased number of cases.”

Increasing numbers of cholera cases are also reported in Midlands and Masvingo.

It’s not just the rainy season that’s helping to spread cholera, but also a weakened healthcare system and poor water and sanitation.

Asked whether health officials, at this stage, are simply trying to contain the epidemic, she says, “Of course, what you can do in this type of situation is only run after the fire. That in fact what is happening. And that’s why it’s so difficult to contain the epidemic.”

Chaignat says that cholera awareness and prevention efforts should have been started much earlier than they were in Zimbabwe. However, because of the high number of cases, the emphasis is being placed on treatment.

How long will it take before the cholera epidemic is contained? The WHO official says, “It’s very difficult to give a specific time frame on this epidemic. But if we look at the epidemic curve, we see that unfortunately we’re very far away from having this epidemic contained.”

There’s also a warning Thursday that malaria may be worse in Zimbabwe in 2009. That’s because efforts to control cholera may be diverting attention away from programs to prevent malaria. The warning comes from the Rollback Malaria Campaign.

It says there’s been much less indoor residual spraying against mosquitoes – and current heavy rains will help increase the mosquito population. The campaign adds that treatment kits to help manage severe malaria cases are not reaching those in need due to distribution problems – and that there’s a shortage of healthcare workers due to Zimbabwe’s economic crisis.