Cholera Epidemic Is Latest Zimbabwe Crisis to Spill Into Neighboring Countries

Zimbabweans struggle to find food and clean water during a raging cholera outbreak, while even burying the dead has become difficult in a devastated economy and unstable political situation.
[MAP: Suspected cholera cases in Zimbabwe]
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 5, 2008; 11:06 AM

MUSINA, South Africa -- Zimbabwe's crumbling economy and services have transformed this South African border town into a teeming district of shoppers, asylum-seekers and job hunters. Now something new has traveled south across the river that divides the two countries: cholera.

This week, the front lawn of Musina's lone, 80-bed hospital was a scene of despair. Beneath trees exploding with yellow and red blossoms, more than 100 adults and children lay inside steamy tents and under bushes, intravenous tubes stretching from the backs of their hands to bags of liquid hanging from tree trunks. Some, suffering through the gravest stages of an illness that causes severe diarrhea and dehydration, wore nothing but adult-size diapers.

Nearly all were from Zimbabwe, where the government declared a national emergency Thursday because of the cholera epidemic ravaging its population and reaching farther each day into neighboring countries such as this one. South Africa announced Friday that it would send military doctors to the border to treat cholera victims, and would send clean water and other aid into Zimbabwe, along with a fact-finding team that will recommend additional humanitarian steps.

"At the moment I knew something was wrong, I had to come here to Musina," said Godfrey Mawunganidze, 40, a Zimbabwean cross-border trader who lay under a tree, a damp towel covering his head. "Because if you go to a hospital in Zimbabwe, that's a dead zone."

Zimbabwe's humanitarian and economic crisis is so dire that millions have fled the nation, where sewage and health-care systems are nearly defunct and food is scarce. Cholera, which is spread through contaminated water and food, has become a symbol of the regional spillover of Zimbabwe's devastation.

But as it crosses borders, the outbreak may also serve as a catalyst for neighboring countries to become more involved in ending months of political impasse that has defied regional mediation and international pressure.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, traveling in Europe, said Friday that the cholera should be a signal to other nations to stand up the government Robert Mugabe, who was re-elected in an internationally condemned election in June. Rice told reporters it was "well past time" for Mugabe to resign. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said the deteriorating situation was "a further illustration of the misrule of Zimbabwe's rogue government."

Both Britain and the Netherlands are urging tougher EU sanctions against Mugabe's regime. Mugabe blames Western sanctions for his once-productive nation's ravaged economy and the desperate plight of an increasing number of its citizens.

In recent months, cholera has killed more than 570 people and infected more than 12,700 others in Zimbabwe. The disease has since surfaced in Botswana and Mozambique. Zambia, to the north, is screening for symptoms at border posts.

Health workers in the province surrounding Musina, where cholera was last reported in 2001, have treated more than 435 patients in recent weeks, nearly 90 percent Zimbabwean. The crocodile-infested river along the border here has tested positive for the cholera bacteria, South African health officials said, probably because Zimbabwean communities with no sewage systems are flushing waste into the waterway.

"Zimbabwe is a sore on the rest of southern Africa," James D. McKee, the U.S. ambassador to Zimbabwe, said in a recent interview in Harare, Zimbabwe's capital.

Even Zimbabwe's supporters, among them regional power South Africa, are growing anxious. Noting the cholera epidemic, South Africa's cabinet said last month that it would withhold $28 million in agricultural aid to Mugabe's government. . Interim South African President Kgalema Motlanthe has called for the swearing in of Zimbabwean opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai as prime minister and Mugabe as president -- a comment interpreted here as a sign that Motlanthe views Mugabe as an illegitimate leader.

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