GENEVA (Reuters) - Zimbabwe's decimated health care system will struggle to halt a cholera epidemic that has so far killed 565 people, a World Health Organisation (WHO) official said on Thursday.
At least 12,546 people have been infected with cholera in Zimbabwe since August and the country has declared a national emergency.
"We are in front of a disaster. We won't be able to stop the outbreak like that, it is escalating," the WHO's global cholera coordinator Claire-Lise Chaignat told Reuters.
"With such a deterioration in the health care system, difficult communication, shortages of food and staff, it will be a huge challenge to avert further deaths and cases," she said.
Cholera, an intestinal infection that spreads through contaminated food or water, can lead to severe dehydration and death without prompt treatment. It is preventable and treatable under normal circumstances, but Zimbabwe's health sector is near collapse because of the country's economic crisis.
"Many health care facilities are not functioning because of a lack of supplies and staff. This is an acute disease where action is required rapidly," Chaignat said.
LACK OF WATER
Zimbabwe's lack of clean water is a huge obstacle to ending the outbreak, according to the Swiss expert. "So people depend on whatever surface water they can find. In these conditions it is very difficult to control the spread of an epidemic."
The U.N. humanitarian aid office said in a statement released on Thursday: "Lack of adequate water supply and lack of capacity to dispose of solid waste and repair sewage blockages in most areas will continue to contribute to the escalation and spread of the outbreak."
The WHO estimates that 4.5 percent of those contracting cholera in Zimbabwe have died. The normal case fatality rate is below 1 percent when the infection is managed properly with oral rehydration salts and medicines.
"We know there are pockets where the case fatality rate is up to 50 percent in rural areas," Chaignat said.
The Geneva-based WHO is sending six cholera experts to Harare after the health ministry asked for help. It has also provided cholera kits with rehydration salts, intravenous fluids and chlorination tablets, and more are on the way, she said.
Simple steps such as cooking food thoroughly can help stem the outbreak even when care is lacking, according to the WHO.
"If someone is sick, they have to rehydrate him at home, using oral rehydration salts. If they don't have any they can use carrot soup or rice with sugar and salt so patients retain water," Chaignat said. "People die because they are dehydrated."
Zimbabweans are also crossing into neighbouring countries to seek medical care, Chaignat said.
South Africa has reported 438 cholera cases, including six deaths, as of Tuesday, while Mozambique had 278 cases including nine deaths as of a week ago, she said. Botswana has reported two cases.
Zimbabwe's last major cholera outbreak was in 2002 when 3,125 people were infected and 192 died, Chaignat said.