For six months now, the residents of high density suburbs ringing Harare, Zimbabwe, have been living in fear of a repeat of the traumatic cholera epidemic of 2008-2009 following a series of outbreaks of other water-borne diseases such as typhoid.
Many are asking why the government has not made more progress since the cholera epidemic in upgrading water and sanitation systems, and responded more rapidly.
The cholera epidemic claimed the lives more than 4,200 people and brought a torrent of criticism of the former ZANU-PF government’s inadequate response to the crisis and its seeming reluctance to call for foreign assistance as the disease spread.
Many had hoped that a new health crisis would be addressed with speed to avoid needless deaths. The typhoid outbreaks have not produced any fatalities, but the expanding outbreaks suggested that not enough was learned three years ago.
Many residents still feel Harare did not respond rapidly enough to avoid the disease spreading to other areas. Typhoid surfaced in Kuwadzana but soon spread to 41 other suburbs with about 2,000 affected, triggering fears of an epidemic.
Harare Health Director Dr. Prosper Chonzi told VOA the response to typhoid has been less than satisfactory. He says the government was slow to seek international help.
He said too little has been done to improve water and sanitation systems.
The central government says the Harare City Council took too long to inform national health authorities of the outbreaks, saying more could have been done earlier.
Harare Deputy Mayor Emmanuel Chiroto admits mistakes were made – but says the capital city can’t go it alone in addressing water and sanitation issues.
The United States Centers for Disease Control and South Africa have sent in experts to help. But Dr. Portia Manangazira, head of epidemiology and disease control in the ministry of health, says more could have been done at an earlier stage.
Dr. Manangazira says efforts are focused on how to stop the disease from spreading, with local and central government officials working with international partners including the United Nations Children’s Fund and Doctors Without Borders. Both organizations were key players in the response to the devastating cholera epidemic.
The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights says the government did not act urgently enough. It says things could get worse. Doctors for Human Rights Chairman Dr. Douglas Gwatidzo says clean water supplies in many parts of the city are irregular or "completely absent,” while burst sewers are left unattended.
He says no lessons were learned from the 2008-2009 experience.
Itai Rusike of the Community Working Group on Health agrees. He says the government should have prioritized water and sanitation works in Harare and other cities.
Officials hope that stepping up the response will contain the spread of typhoid and avoid another cholera epidemic or similar health emergency.
But for many residents the latest public health crisis mainly reflects the failure by government at all levels to address some of the most basic needs of the people in spite of the grim experience of the cholera epidemic.
In the most recent development in the typhoid crisis, stakeholders including local and national officials, international partners and residents as well as citizen advocates met in Kuwadzana on Friday to take stock of anti-typhoid efforts so far.
Kuwadzana lawmaker Nelson Chamisa, at the meeting, says that what he calls “stone age” diseases are afflicting Harare because of government's failure to do its job.