Zimbabwe cholera epidemic could top 60,000 – Red Cross

GENEVA, Jan 23 (Reuters) – Zimbabwe’s cholera epidemic is “far from under control” and could exceed 60,000 cases over the next week, the Red Cross warned on Friday.

Torrential rains are expected to spark major flooding and exacerbate the water-borne outbreak that has killed 2,773 people among 50,000 infected since August, the United Nations said.

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“The outbreak in Zimbabwe is only increasing in scale, it’s claiming more lives,” Dr. Tammam Aloudat, senior health officer at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told journalists in Geneva.

The World Health Organisation (WHO), a U.N. agency, warned in December that up to 60,000 people could be infected if the country’s worst cholera epidemic spiralled out of control.

“It is difficult to predict where the outbreak will peak. It might even go beyond that nightmare scenario,” Aloudat said.

Asked whether there was any chance that the outbreak — which registered 1,000 new infections in the past 24 hours — could be stopped before reaching 60,000 in the next week, he replied: “Very little chance”.

In a statement, the Federation voiced alarm at the high 5.7 percent mortality rate, calling it “an indication that the outbreak is still far from under control”.

“Overall, this signifies a 20 percent increase in cholera deaths over the past week and rings alarm bells about the need to push back this epidemic and better fund the humanitarian effort on the ground,” the agency said.

Donors had only contributed 40 percent of the 10.2 million Swiss francs ($8.82 million) it appealed for a month ago.

Critics blame the crisis on the policies of President Robert Mugabe, a charge he denies. A power-sharing deal signed by the veteran ruler and his opposition rival Morgan Tsvangirai on Sept. 15 appears to be unravelling.

“The lack of funding is probably a mixture of several aspects, most importantly we’ve seen the funding drop when Zimbabwe dropped off the television screens,” Aloudat said.

“It is not about the politics or persons here. It is about the ability to reach people who are now dying of cholera and need assistance now,” he added.

Cholera, an intestinal infection that spreads through contaminated food or water, can lead to severe dehydration and death without prompt treatment.

It is both preventable and treatable under normal circumstances, but Zimbabwe’s health sector has nearly collapsed as a result of its economic crisis.

Most of its 235 cholera treatment centres remain ill-equipped to handle patients, according to the WHO.

“Two out of three cases occur in the community, away from the treatment centres because people aren’t able to reach them, or when they do they have little medicine or personnel,” WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told reporters. (For more information on humanitarian crises and issues visit www.alertnet.org ) (Editing by Jonathan Lynn and Richard Balmforth)

Fri Jan 23, 2009 10:37am EST
By Stephanie Nebehay

Source: Reuters

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