Over the past few weeks some 900 residents of the Zimbabwean capital Harare have been diagnosed with typhoid, and about 60 have been admitted to hospital, say health authorities.
“Initially, we were focusing on Dzivarasekwa high density suburb as being the source of the disease outbreak but we are now receiving patients from different high density suburbs in Harare such as Kuwadzana and Warren Park,” Harare’s health director, Propser Chonzi, told IRIN.
There have been no confirmed fatalities from the disease, although senior health officials, who declined to be identified, told IRIN they were investigating the cause of some deaths at hospitals.
Chonzi said about 20 tuberculosis (TB) patients had been relocated from the 144-bed Beatrice Infectious Diseases Hospital on the outskirts of Harare to another infectious diseases institution, the Wilkins Hospital in central Harare, to make way for typhoid victims.
According to the UN World Health Organization (WHO), typhoid “usually occurs where water supplies serving large populations are contaminated by faecal matter.” The disease is “characterized by the sudden onset of sustained fever, severe headache, nausea, abdominal pains, loss of appetite, constipation or sometimes diarrhoea. The illness can last for several weeks and even months,” it says.
Recent heavy rain in Harare is expected to compound the problem: Broken drains and water pipes have forced people to dig shallow wells, which are easily contaminated by human faeces.
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“I can bet my last dollar there is typhoid in Chitungwiza and Epworth [Harare commuter towns]. The hygienic levels there are not good,” said Chonzi in a recent interview with the daily The Herald newspaper.
Furthermore, Chonzi said street food had been tested and found to be contaminated with Salmonella typhi, the bacteria which causes typhoid.
“We all need to change our habits if this [typhoid] outbreak is to be contained. We need to work on improving on cleanliness such as washing hands and avoiding dirty open air vending sites,” he said.
However, fish vendors, threatened with arrest by municipal police, have changed tactics and are selling their wares at night.
Conditions which allow typhoid to flourish also provide favourable conditions for the waterborne disease cholera. Zimbabwe’s year-long cholera epidemic in 2008-09 killed more than 4,000 people and infected nearly 100,000 others.
“We can have cholera any time. The environment is conducive for the outbreak. We need to be proactive and play our part,” Chonzi warned in the same newspaper interview.
The Harare Residents Trust (HRT), an NGO campaigning for better municipal service delivery, said the spread of waterborne disease was due to the authorities’ failure to collect refuse, the erratic provision of water services, and the practice of pumping raw sewage into one of the main reservoirs supplying “drinking” water to Harare.
“The city must guarantee adequate clean water supplies to avoid the 2008 cholera outbreak,” HRT’s Precious Shumba told IRIN.