Harare, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwean health authorities — battling a cholera outbreak that has infected about 20,000 people and killed more than 370 — say they hope donated vaccines will ease the spread of waterborne disease now affecting 60 of the country’s 64 districts.
Zimbabwean Health Minister Douglas Mombeshora told reporters in Harare on Wednesday that the country had recorded 20,121 suspected cholera cases and 376 deaths — six of them since Tuesday. He said the World Health Organization and the United Nations Children’s Fund had secured 2.3 million cholera vaccine doses for the country, with nearly 900,000 of them to be administered next week.
“The vaccination campaign is expected to start from the 29th of January in [a] phased approach to the hot spots,” he said. “This is because the doses are not enough to cover the whole country. And then roll on to the other affected districts as we receive more vaccines. The challenge is that there is a shortage of vaccine in the world because cholera is not in Zimbabwe alone. So, all other countries that have reported cholera are also getting the same vaccine from the same source. So, it’s now controlled by the WHO. Otherwise only the rich countries will wipe out the vaccines before others get them.”
Mombeshora said 37 African countries had confirmed cases of cholera. The WHO’s Africa office did not confirm the number Wednesday.
In a statement to VOA, Dr. Paul Ngwakum, regional health adviser for UNICEF in eastern and southern Africa, said the cholera outbreak “remains a serious public health concern and continues to impact children’s lives in the region. An unprecedented surge in cholera cases is being recorded in the region due to many factors, including extreme climatic events such as droughts, cyclones and flooding … With porous borders and high population movements, cholera is spreading fast.”
Mombeshora is urging Zimbabweans to accept the cholera vaccine.
“This is not a new vaccine and it has been used all over the world,” he said. “The only reason why we do not have it enough is because it is only manufactured on demand. Therefore, it’s the same vaccine and it’s very, very safe. We did not receive an adverse report in our past use of it. I have had a cholera vaccine before, years ago, nothing to worry about.”
Dr. Prosper Chonzi, Harare’s director of health services, says now that there is vaccine, people must not ease up on hygienic practices. Chonzi said he was not happy that Harare is still full of vendors selling uninspected fruits and vegetables.
“I think the general economy is playing against us,” he said. “We have been doing these hide-and-seek games, chase after vendors, it has not been working. At least if we clean up for now, then we come up with medium- to long-term plans to maintain the clean environment that is there. As the director of health, I am not happy with the vending situation in the city. It is playing against what we want to achieve as we try to contain the outbreak. If you buy food from uninspected premises, the chances of you contracting not only cholera, but typhoid, dysentery and other diarrhea, are very high.”
Zimbabwe’s moribund economy is forcing citizens to venture into vending as a source of income as jobs are hard to come by, with some estimates putting unemployment at about 85%. Experts say that is making the fight against a cholera outbreak difficult with the country recording 1,000 new cases every week since the beginning of the year, according to the United Nations.