International Rescue Committee (IRC)

Zimbabwe: “Can you rescue us?”

Imagine if tomorrow people in the town where you live started getting suddenly and violently ill. You don’t know what’s wrong or how to help them. People are dying, sometimes within hours, because there’s no treatment available.  And then the disease spreads to neighboring communities because no one knows how to stop it.

That is exactly what was happening in Zimbabwe in 2008 when the International Rescue Committee (IRC) arrived to respond to an outbreak of cholera that was gripping many parts of the country.

Cholera is a deadly bacterial disease spread by contaminated water that can quickly cause acute diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration.  Before 2008 cholera was not common in Zimbabwe and therefore most people were unaware of the disease and didn’t know how to prevent or treat it. By the start of 2009 it had killed over 4,000 people and sickened more than 100,000.

After a decade of economic meltdown and mass inflation, Zimbabwe’s water and sanitation infrastructure was crumbling. As a result, the country found itself struggling with various water borne illnesses including cholera and typhoid. 

In the last two years Zimbabwe’s government has taken great strides in reestablishing access to safe, clean water in health facilities, schools and communities.  However it still has a long way to go, especially in rural areas. It is in these areas that the IRC is supporting the government to restore community water systems and also responding to outbreaks of illness as they arise.

My role as the IRC’s emergency surveillance officer in eastern Zimbabwe is to respond to public health emergencies such as cholera within 48 hours of an outbreak being reported. Last year 1,022 cases of cholera and 23 deaths from the disease were reported in the country.  Forty-three percent of these cases were found in the remote eastern highlands along Zimbabwe’s border with Mozambique.  This is a particularly rural area where the most of the water systems have fallen into disrepair.

In some of the schools we work in, children have to bring their own drinking water to school. There is not even water available for hand-washing. People living in the area are forced to collect water from the nearby Save and Odzi rivers, among the largest in eastern Zimbabwe. In the absence of treated town water, the two rivers are used for drinking water as well as for agriculture, livestock, washing clothes and many other uses. This creates a perfect environment for highly infectious diseases like cholera to spread.

To make matters worse, the population is very mobile – as people travel to find work, disease travels with them.  So I work very closely with communities, schools and rural health centers in the area to ensure that cases of cholera and other communicable diseases are identified and reported early.

Tomorrow, I'll write about how my IRC colleagues and I fight cholera by educating communities and improving the circumstances in which people live.

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