Editorial Comment – Typhoid: No lessons learnt from the past

Lake Chivero

Lake Chivero

Zimbabwe should not be having to deal with yet another diarrhoeal outbreak. After the cholera outbreak of 2008 which killed so many people, we should have learnt our lessons. Yet the typhoid cases that seem to be spreading in a number of Harare suburbs appear to prove otherwise.

Cases have so far been diagnosed in Hatfield, Hopley, Glen Norah and Budiriro. There was also a scare in Eastlea with some Roosevelt Girls High School pupils being quarantined last week on suspicion that they could have contracted cholera.

Typhoid, cholera, dysentery and other diarrhoeal diseases are spread through the ingestion of bacteria. In other words one has to eat or drink something that has been directly contaminated by infected faecal matter. In this case the health authorities now suspect that the bacteria is being spread through unsafe water sources.

It is not enough to keep on talking about contaminated water sources. The jury is still out on whether tap water reticulated by the City of Harare is really potable, but there is no argument that it fails the test. It tastes terrible and has all manner of foreign bodies which settle into a slimy brown sludge when left undisturbed for a while. Engineers have said that it has become too expensive to fully purify the water from Lake Chivero in light of the industrial and domestic effluent that is discharged into feeder water sources.

Many residents had turned to wells and borehole water as a safe alternative. But hygiene standards indicate that the water source has to be at least 100 metres from the nearest contaminated point. Achieving this in Harare has become almost impossible because of burst sewer pipes, Blair toilets being built to mitigate the effects of piped water supply shortages and the poor waste management systems, especially when it comes to disposable diapers.

Bottled water is also not always a safer option with some brands reportedly simply bottling tap water. In fact, we are surprised that after the Standards Association of Zimbabwe published the results of a study that showed that some of the bottled water on the market was not safe, the condemned brands are still in business, selling their contaminated water to unwary consumers.

So with most of our water sources being clearly unsafe, what we need to be investing in is educating the population on sustainable ways of purifying water at household level. It is up to the individual to make sure that the water they are drinking is safe.

We repeatedly boast of our high literacy levels at any given opportunity. In addition, we also enjoy a high percentage of mobile phone penetration, making the sharing of information that much easier. So the wellness of the country’s population should not be under threat from preventable diseases when communication is so easy. The relevant stakeholders should constantly be reminding citizens on how to keep diarrhoea away.

All institutions such as schools should invest in water purification systems like the ones that are installed at the faucet, thus automatically rendering all water emitted therein safe. Purification tablets and fluids are also affordable with a month’s supply for a family of six costing a dollar or less.

Responsible authorities should be using existing structures like community leaders, civil society, the health delivery system or the municipal offices to distribute water purification chemicals. We imagine that this is one case where prevention is definitely cheaper than cure.

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