Published December 03, 2008
Graphic images of bodies stacked in the bathrooms of crumbling Zimbabwean hospitals and of hundreds of cholera-stricken victims fleeing across the border for medical treatment in South Africa have sparked fears that the epidemic in Zimbabwe is spinning out of control.
FOX News' sister network, SKY News, has obtained disturbing video showing just how bad it is: bodies of cholera victims piled up in a bathroom in the nation's capital, Harare, and makeshift hospitals on the border of South Africa treating patients who are close to death.
“There are cholera victims leaving Zimbabwe for South Africa and Mozambique,” Gregory Hartl, spokesman for Epidemic Diseases at the World Health Organization told FOXNews.com. He spoke after it was announced that a team of six to eight WHO specialists will fly to Zimbabwe this week with supplies and equipment to further assess the situation.
Hartl said the team will include epidemiologists, specialists in waterborne diseases, and experts in cholera surveillance who will track the parts of the country where the disease is originating.
Zimbabwe’s Health Minister, David Parirenyatwa, met with United Nations officials and non-governmental organization health workers in Harare Wednesday for the first time since the outbreak was reported in August. He admitted: “We need help.”
According to official WHO figures, 565 people have died from cholera and more than 12,546 are infected. And unofficial estimates indicate the toll could be much higher.
The disease, spread through contaminated water, poor sanitation and unclean food, causes diarrhea and vomiting that, if untreated, can lead to death.
Conditions in Harare are perfect for the spread of the disease. Sewage flows in the suburban streets, children play in cesspools of stagnant water, and there is no clean drinking water, since the country has run out of chemicals to treat its water-supply system. The city’s water authority cut off the taps early this week as a result of the lack of chlorine.
In what was seen by many Zimbabweans as a sick joke, a public service announcement by the Zimbabwe government Monday encouraged people to boil water to make sure it was clean. But there is little electricity in Zimbabwe to power kettles, since the country’s power grid has collapsed, and there is a shortage of firewood.
“It’s really disturbing; the death toll is going up every day,” says Stephanie Bunker, spokeswoman for the United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “What you have seen in the last two months is the collapse of the education system, the health system, huge problems with clean and running water, and lack of any medial supplies to treat diseases.”
At a hospital in South Africa’s northern border province of Limpopo, beds are overflowing, ailing patients spill out onto the grounds, and overworked nurses and doctors struggle to keep up with new arrivals.
“People have no services [on] that side,” a hospital worker told SKY News. “They have to come here to save their lives.”
According to one Zimbabwean refugee in Limpopo, 362 people had died from cholera in one provincial hospital in the remote rural district of Chiredzi, in southeastern Zimbabwe.
The WHO says it is working with the South African government to establish rehydration centers along the border to assist new arrivals. “It’s just that there is really no government in Zimbabwe,” said an official, who requested anonymity.
The cholera outbreak is just the latest crisis in a country that has experienced a decade of political and economic turmoil.
President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled for 28 years, refused to leave office following disputed elections in March, while a power-sharing deal with the opposition Movement for Democratic Change party has been deadlocked for weeks after Mugabe refused to share the most powerful cabinet posts. At 230 million percent, Zimbabwe has the second-highest inflation rate in history, and there are estimates that more than 3 million people — one quarter of the population — have fled the country.
In a sign that the cholera epidemic is only the beginning of the fallout from the collapse of the health system, Save the Children warned this week that an outbreak of anthrax in livestock in northern Zimbabwe has already killed three people who ate infected meat.