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Q&A: Zimbabwe – Fighting Cholera on a Shoestring

Davison Makanga interviews FARID ABDULKADIR, Zimbabwe head of operations, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent

HARARE, Jan 23 2009 (IPS) - Nearly 50,000 cases of cholera have been reported in Zimbabwe by the World Health Organisation; the death toll stood at 2,755 on Jan. 21.

International and regional humanitarian organisations are working with Zimbabwean health care workers and volunteers to slow the spread of the epidemic, but human and financial resources are stretched to the breaking point.

Farid Abdulkadir, head of operations in Zimbabwe for the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent societies told IPS that his organisation's 9.2 million dollar Cholera Emergency Appeal, launched at the end of December 2008 has raised only 40 percent of its target.

IPS: What are the latest casualty figures? Farid Abdulkadir: At the moment we are talking of over 2,700 people who have died of cholera in various parts of the country. There are also over 50,000 people affected by cholera. The pandemic is on the rise and the rains that are being experienced in the country have also made the situation worse.

IPS: What is the Red Cross doing to contain the epidemic? FA: So far we have mounted cholera operations composed of three main activities. The first one is hygiene promotion targeting people in schools and markets on how to prevent and avoid being contact with cholera. [We're explaining] how to identify the signs of cholera and what to do when someone shows them.

We have also mounted an operation in terms of supplying clean water through purification. We have produced two million litres of water in various parts of the country through the emergency unit which is purifying water with chlorine and giving it to the community.

The final component is supporting the Ministry of Health with additional drugs and increasing their bed capacity to be able to cope with the increased numbers of patients in hospitals.

IPS: What is expected next as the epidemic develops: is it increasing rapidly or is it being brought under control? FA: The truth is that cholera cases are on the increase because of a health system that has been overstretched, a water system that has not been functioning appropriately and the rains that are coming.

As you know, Zimbabwe is facing a lot of economic problems and an inflation rate that has several zeros. You are talking of several factors that are promoting cholera, which is a preventable and curable disease that is killing people more than it should.

IPS: Now, you mentioned you are working with the Ministry of Health, tell us more about your working relationship with the government of Zimbabwe. FA: I can tell you the Ministry of Health staff is working round the clock under difficult circumstances to deal with the cholera situation.

There are weaknesses in the system due to the economic problems, but we are working with them. We gave them allowances to keep them moving and going. They feel energised; they feel that people are not leaving them alone in this fight. There is massive upscale of operations through both colleagues that have come to reinforce the system and the existing staff that are working within the Ministry of Health.

IPS: And what about support from other players in the international donor community. Are you receiving enough funding? FA: The truth is our funding level is very low. We have money to last us for another month but the problem is that the resources that are coming in are very minimal which will definitely slow down the operation.

We have to maintain the three components of the operation at the same time. We have one that looks at prevention, ensuring that the disease is cured at the source and of course providing health services to the community because they need and require it. Our biggest problem has been the funding level that we are currently experiencing, and we urge all communities and people all over to help Zimbabwe fight cholera.

IPS: Can you explain what kind of support is needed? FA: The support required is in terms of drugs, water purification chemicals, and hygiene promotion material. And in terms of upkeep for the ministries of Health and Water Resources to maintain the tempo and energy in the fight against cholera.

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