Since last October health officials in Harare, Zimbabwe, have been battling outbreaks of typhoid bringing back fears for many Zimbabweans of the deadly 2008-2009 cholera epidemic which hit tens of thousands left more than 4,200 people dead.
Many in other cities wonder if typhoid will spread from the densely populated capital.
The bacterial disease typhoid spreads not only through contaminated food and water but also human contact. Authorities grappling with the typhoid outbreak have called on the local and central governments to overhaul water and sanitation systems to end the outbreaks that have affected more than 2,000 people.
Coordinating the response is Dr. Portia Manangazira, chief of epidemiology and disease control in the Ministry of Health. She told VOA that while no deaths have been reported, authorities are urging residents to take steps to protect themselves, hard as that may be in the absence of clean water in many Harare suburbs.
Dr. Manangazira said Zimbabwean and international health authorities responded well to the crisis – though initially city officials took their time to report the outbreaks.
Dr Manangazira says health authorities are closely monitoring the situation in Harare with the focus on prevention and helping residents most at risk of contracting typhoid.
Typhoid can be carried and spread without any symptoms, increasing the need for attention to hygiene. Experts recommend avoiding water from uncertain sources and food sold on the street. Residents are urged to eat or buy food only from licensed vendors and wash their hands thoroughly before handling food.
Those without clean running water are urged to boil water before they drink it. Dr Manangazira said water can be purified with the addition of two drops of chlorine per liter if water purification tablets are not readily available.
Public health lecturer Davison Saungweme of Pennsylvania State University in the United States said the most important thing for Harare to do is to provide clean running water. He said closing food market stalls is not an answer to the problem.
Some international partners – the United Nations Children’s Fund and Doctors Without Borders – have set up treatment centers in the affected suburbs in Harare, in particular Kuwadzana and Dzivarasekwa which were hit first and hardest.
Reached by VOA, representatives of both organizations declined to comment, saying that unlike during the cholera epidemic three years ago, all information about the outbreak and response must be channeled through Dr. Manangazira.
Most of the 41 Harare suburbs hit by typhoid have long been without running water.
Harare city authorities have acknowledged they cannot supply water to all residents.
Dams and water treatment facilities date back to before Independence in 1980 and even when they still fuction are insufficient in capacity to meet increasing demand.
Harare deputy mayor Emmanuel Chiroto says the city is slowly getting the crisis under control. But it is still too early to say whether the typhoid threat can be neutralized by the measures the authorities have been able to take so far.