Health & Education

Cholera in Zambia

2,840 recorded cases so far, 70 deaths

With 2,840 recorded cases so far, and 70 deaths confirmed, Zambia is in the throes of one of the worst cholera epidemics it has seen in recent years.

This latest outbreak is four times worse than the last time the nation was hit by the disease. In 2016, around 700 cases were confirmed between the February-April period.

Lusaka has been one of the most affected urban areas, with a particular concentration of cases in the area surrounding the popular outdoor food bazaar, Soweto Market.

The Zambian government has put emergency measures in place to stop the spread of the disease. On the cure front, enough oral vaccines to immunize 1 million people have been shipped into the country with the support of the WHO and UNICEF.

However, when it comes to prevention, critics are questioning the government’s approach.

In November, the authorities took part in a clean up operation at Soweto Market, and called on stakeholders such as the Lusaka Water and Sewerage Company (LWSC) to improve sanitation conditions on the city’s streets.

But more recently, as cholera continues to spread, harsher measures have been implemented. Earlier this month, the government banned street vending of food and other items, as well as public gatherings of more than five people.

The passport office in Lusaka has been closed too, preventing citizens from traveling.

Many schools have also been suspended until further notice.

Riots have taken place on the streets of Lusaka, with opponents condemning the government’s measures as a poorly disguised attempt to exert control over the populace. They argue that since cholera is not an airborne disease, but rather spread through contaminated water and foodstuffs, these precautions are unnecessary.

This is not the first time ruling President Edgar Lungu has come under fire for alleged attempts to limit citizens’ freedom and shut down opposition, paving the way for Zambia to become a one-party state.

What is more, Phase 1 of the Ministry of Health’s oral vaccine program has seen just 22% uptake, indicating that health promotion and awareness have not been successful.

In an interview with TBY last year, Dr. Chitalu Chilufya, Minister of Health, stressed that “tied in with increasing access to healthcare for our people is an emphasis on health promotion, the bedrock for disease promotion. This is being anchored on strengthened collaboration between ministries, private sector, civil society, community-based organizations, academia, civic, political, and religious, and traditional leaders and indeed the general public.”

Some visible progress is being made. Door-to-door awareness programs have been launched, with the objective of educating people about sanitation and the best methods of preventing cross contamination.

Moreover, statements have been issued by the government urging citizens not to buy produce from street markets. However, supermarket shopping is a luxury not all can afford. According to price estimates listed online by a Zambian seedling company, as well as TBY’s own in-country sources, some goods are around 2.5 times more expensive in the supermarket.

Amidst controversy and riots, it is all too easy to see the epidemic becoming a symbol of political and social discontent. But as the number of recorded cases continues to rise, we should remember that Zambia’s cholera threat is a very real problem.