- Speaking to reporters in Lusaka on January 16, Zambia’s Health Minister Sylvia Masebo said the cholera outbreak has since affected 45 out of the country’s 116 districts.
- The outbreak has exposed the vulnerabilities in Zambia’s public health infrastructure, with reports of inadequate water and sanitation facilities in affected regions.
- As Zambia confronts this challenging chapter in its history, the hope for a brighter and healthier future remains undying.
When Zambia gained independence nearly six decades ago, the promise of self-rule brought with it the hope of eradicating disease, ignorance, and poor governance.
The people of Zambia envisioned a future marked by good health and prosperity, as Africans took charge of their destiny on the continent.
Promise of independence
As the nation embraced independence, the struggle for genuine freedom, democracy, and good health became an ongoing narrative, with political leaders rallying citizens to embrace unity and hard work.
However, the dawn of October 2023 brought with it disturbing news that shattered the optimism that had prevailed for years.
Zambia found itself grappling with a cholera outbreak, a health crisis that has since spread across the entire country, impacting communities from urban centers to remote villages.
Speaking to reporters in Lusaka on January 16, Zambia’s Health Minister Sylvia Masebo said the cholera outbreak has since affected 45 out of the country’s 116 districts.
“The 418 new cases have been recorded from eight provinces, with Lusaka accounting for 381. We have recorded 12 deaths and discharged 363 patients from the various treatment centers over the past 24 hours,” she noted.
The Minister added that the country has “periodically used oral cholera vaccines to successfully respond to emergencies that have affected different parts of the country.”
Cholera, a waterborne disease caused by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium, thrives in unsanitary conditions, often striking areas with inadequate access to clean water and proper sanitation.
Unfortunately, despite the strides made in various sectors since gaining independence, Zambia has found itself battling an outbreak that threatens not only the health of its citizens but also the aspirations of the nation for a healthier, disease-free future.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, termed the fatality rate of around 4% in the three-month outbreak “a devastatingly high number.”
UNICEF called on Southern African nations including Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe to focus on effective management of the pandemic, terming cholera a highly fatal disease.
“There have been recent cholera outbreaks in other southern African nations including Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. More than 200,000 cases and over 3,000 deaths have been reported in southern Africa since the start of 2023,” said UNICEF.
Dr. Mazyanga Mazaba, Director of Public Health Policy and Communication at the Public Health Institute, said Zambia has had several major cholera outbreaks since the 1970s but this was the worst in 20 years in terms of caseload.
“The cholera bacteria can survive longer in warmer weather and the unusually heavy rains and storms in southern Africa have contributed to recent outbreaks,” said Dr. Mazaba.
Causes and vulnerabilities
The outbreak has exposed the vulnerabilities in Zambia’s public health infrastructure, with reports of inadequate water and sanitation facilities in affected regions.
Overstretched healthcare systems are struggling to cope with the surge in cholera cases, leaving many without access to timely and adequate medical attention.
The Zambian government has since embarked on a mass vaccination exercise and is committed to providing 2.4 million liters of clean water daily, to communities that are affected across the nation.
One of the key challenges contributing to the rapid spread of cholera is the lack of awareness and education on preventative measures within local communities.
Many Zambians, particularly in rural areas, lack proper knowledge about hygiene practices and the importance of clean water. This knowledge gap has exacerbated the crisis, leading to an increased susceptibility to cholera among the population.
Government response and challenges
Government officials have been quick to respond to the crisis, implementing emergency measures to curb the spread of the disease.
Water purification initiatives, public health campaigns, and efforts to improve sanitation infrastructure are underway, but the magnitude of the outbreak demands a comprehensive and sustained response.
International organizations and aid agencies have also joined forces with the Zambian government to assist.
The World Health Organization (WHO), in a statement last year said that while poverty and conflict remain the main drivers of cholera, climate change has contributed to the disease’s upsurge in many places across the globe since 2021 by making storms wetter and more frequent.
“Through the Global Task Force on Cholera Control (GTFCC), the WHO provides a forum for technical exchange, coordination, and cooperation on cholera related activities to strengthen capacity to prevent and control cholera,” says Dr. Nathan Nsubuga, WHO Representative to Zambia.
The economic repercussions of the cholera outbreak are significant, with businesses affected, travel restricted, and agricultural activities disrupted.
The loss of productivity and income has placed an additional burden on communities already grappling with the health crisis.
“We didn’t expect the cholera outbreak to be this big; we mobilized ourselves and opened a cholera center here… Whatever we did here can be used to do better,” says a representative from Bauleni Clinic in Zambia’s capital city of Lusaka.
The human toll is perhaps the most devastating aspect of the cholera outbreak.
Families have been torn apart as loved ones succumb to the disease, and communities are grappling with the emotional and social aftermath of the crisis.
Health experts have warned that the numerous cholera outbreaks globally have strained the supply of vaccines to developing nations.
“The loss of life underscores the urgency of addressing the root causes of the outbreak and implementing long-term solutions to prevent future recurrences.
As the country strives to contain the outbreak, the economic fallout threatens to deepen the impact on the lives of ordinary citizens,” say experts.
Addressing the epidemic
In addressing the cholera crisis, it is essential to acknowledge the interconnectedness of health, education, and governance.
The outbreak highlights the need for sustained investments in public health infrastructure, ensuring access to clean water, proper sanitation, and widespread health education.
Additionally, it underscores the importance of accountable governance to effectively manage and respond to health emergencies.
While the current situation in Zambia is dire, it also presents an opportunity for the nation to reassess and strengthen its commitment to building a resilient and sustainable healthcare system.
The cholera outbreak serves as a wake-up call for the government, citizens, and the international community to collaborate in addressing not only the immediate crisis but also the underlying systemic issues that have contributed to the outbreak.
As Zambia confronts this challenging chapter in its history, the hope for a brighter and healthier future remains undying.
The collective efforts of the government, aid organizations, and the Zambian people will determine the trajectory of the nation’s recovery from the cholera outbreak, with the ultimate goal of building a more robust and resilient healthcare system for generations to come.
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According to the Zambia Public Health Institute, (ZPHI), the government body that deals with health emergencies, the outbreak, which began in October 2023, has caused 412 deaths and 10, 413 cases recorded in health facilities.