Nigel's Story: The tragedy of Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak

© UNICEF Zimbabwe/2008/Myhren
Nigel Chigudu, 15, lost five siblings to cholera in one night. UNICEF has appealed for help to contain the epidemic that has been sweeping Zimbabwe.

By Tsitsi Singizi

HARARE, Zimbabwe, 19 December 2008 – Deep grief is evident in Nigel Chigudu's eyes. In a tortured voice, he slowly recounts the harrowing tragedy that saw him lose five siblings in five hours to the cholera epidemic that has been sweeping across Zimbabwe.

"They started vomiting and had serious diarrhoea," recalls Nigel, 15. "The youngest, Gamu, was 14 months old, and Lameck was 12 years old. It was in the middle of the night; I could not take them anywhere. I just watched them die.

"Two days later, my grandmother also passed away," he adds.

Cholera epicentre

Nigel lives in Budiriro Township, Harare, the epicentre of Zimbabwe's latest cholera outbreak. Across the road from his family's home, at a UNICEF-supported cholera treatment centre, a grieving mother collects the body of her two-year-old baby who has also succumbed.

These stories are not unique. They echo in the lives of an increasing number of people across Zimbabwe—the stark consequence of water outages, a failed sewer and sanitation system, and garbage piling up on the streets.

In Budiriro, burst sewage pipes have left puddles and a permanent stench while months of uncollected refuse litter the streets. Filthy conditions like these have prompted UNICEF to make an international appeal for help to control the epidemic, which is spread by contaminated water.

Disease spreading fast

Across Zimbabwe, in high-density urban areas such as Budiriro in Harare and Dulibadzimu in Beitbridge, cholera is spreading like wildfire. Nine out of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces have reported cases. More than 16,000 cases and almost 800 deaths have been reported since August.

"Zimbabwean children are already vulnerable, a quarter of them are orphaned, most have fewer meals than their peers across the globe," said UNICEF Representative in Zimbabwe Roeland Monasch. "These children now feel the severity of a national cholera crisis, which in some instances is robbing them of their lives. It is vital that we bring them life-saving interventions now."

As urgent relief, UNICEF has provided hundreds of thousands of water treatment tablets with a capacity to treat and purify water in more than 3 million households. It has also distributed thousands of oral rehydration salts, IV fluids and drips to treat diarrhoeal dehydration, as well as washing soap and buckets.

'A window of opportunity'

In addition, UNICEF is trucking safe drinking water and mounting community-based water tanks in cholera-affected communities. There is also a drive to intensify hygiene education and health promotion.

"The cholera outbreak is symptomatic of the general collapse of infrastructure and services," said Mr. Monasch, "Health and education sectors face immense challenges and require support."

To galvanize this critical support, UNICEF has embarked on a $17 million emergency programme for the next 120 days. This programme will fund medicines for 70 per cent of the population; scale up community-based therapeutic feeding; carry out outreach immunization services, and provide incentives for teachers and nurses to return to work.

"In the next four months, we have a window of opportunity to reverse the deterioration of the social services. We cannot afford to miss this chance," said Mr. Monasch. "However, we cannot do it alone; we need support in raising the funds required for this response."




19 December 2008: UNICEF's Tsitsi Singizi tells the story of Nigel Chigudu, 15, who lost five siblings to Zimbabwe's cholera outbreak in one night.
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22 December 2008: UNICEF Correspondent Roshni Karwal reports on the cholera crisis in Zimbabwe.
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