Health & Medicine

A cholera epidemic stalks Zimbabwe

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Médecins Sans Frontières treating cases of Cholera (image: Sokwanele - Zimbabwe/Flickr)

Aid workers and doctors are battling a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe.  The number of reported cases is now 16,000, and officials say it has killed at least 800.

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Cholera is a simple bacteria, but it is a devastating disease.  

"Cholera is an ancient disease, and a deadly one.  The tragedy is that today we know how to treat it effectively and how to prevent it effectively.  Sadly, those measures are not in place all over the world, and people continue to suffer and die from the disease," says Dr. Eric Mintz a cholera expert from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Some of the reports out of Zimbabwe are disturbing, particularly how quicly the disease acts.  There was a story last week about five kids in one family that all died within 48 hours of contracting cholera.

"It's typical of the way that cholera can present.  It can run through a population like a wildfire.  It spreads very quickly, especially in urban populations, and can be highly fatal if not properly treated.

"Anywhere where the safety of drinking water is compromised, people who drink the water are subject to infection with cholera and with many other waterborne diseases, even in the U.S. or in Europe or anywhere," says Dr. Mintz.

The simple treatment for the disease, rehydration with the proper solution of electrolytes and sucrose, was discovered in the 1960s.  This brought its mortality rate down considerably.  However, with contaminated water sources, treatment and prevention becomes exceedingly difficult when cholera reaches epidemic levels.  

Municipal water systems with proper filtration take a great deal of time and money to construct and maintain, offering little hope for the current epidemic.  Dr. Mintz says that one approach is to give people dilute bleach or chlorine tablets to sanitize their own drinking water in hopes of stemming the disease's dominance.

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