- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 27, 2008

MUSINA, South Africa

Three makeshift tents in the hospital gardens of this gritty frontier town contain the most recent and unwelcome byproduct of Zimbabwe’s destruction - cholera.

In the past two weeks, nearly 200 Zimbabweans have been treated for the infectious diarrheal disease - three of them too late to be saved - at Musina’s modest hospital.

Authorities fear many more will follow.

As he lies on his bed in the tent, Owen Mugari counts his blessings. With a drip attached to his arm and bottles of clean water close to hand - an unthinkable luxury in his homeland - Mr. Mugari says he is regaining strength by the hour.

“I’m grateful to be here and really happy with the treatment,” he says. “In Zimbabwe, there is nothing, nothing,” says the 29-year old casual farm laborer, echoing a constant refrain among the Zimbabweans flocking to South Africa.

Those who make it through the chaotic crossing are the lucky ones.

In Beitbridge Hospital on the Zimbabwean side of the border, about 200 people are being admitted every day - more than 1,800 so far. There have been 63 deaths, according to figures released Wednesday by South African officials.

South African Health Minister Barbara Hogan said there was no possibility that her country would close its borders to contain the epidemic.

“We are facing a humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe,” she told a news conference in the capital, Pretoria. “Under no conditions would we want to stop entry of any person who is ill crossing from Zimbabwe to South Africa. These are people who need our help. They are our neighbors.”

The United Nations said Tuesday that more than 50 cholera deaths had been reported in Zimbabwe in the past day alone, bringing the toll to 366 since August, with most in the past two weeks.

It said that nearly 9,000 cases have now been recorded and that the disease has spread to more than half the country and has been carried by victims to Botswana and South Africa.

The Zimbabwean Association Doctors for Human Rights says hundreds more Zimbabweans are dying at home, uncounted and untreated as the country’s health system has collapsed. It estimates that 10 percent of those who contract the easily treatable disease are dying and accuses the government of doing too little to contain the epidemic.

The World Health Organization’s Stella Anyangwe, at the news conference with Ms. Hogan, said the Zimbabwean government was doing what it could and was working with international organizations to combat the disease.

Illustrating the extent of the collapse of the once-proud health system, Ms. Anyangwe reeled off a wish list of urgently needed supplies: bleach, latex gloves, water-treatment pills, buckets with lids, clotheslines, cotton - and body bags.

There are fears that the worst is yet to come.

Rain is lashing the capital, Harare, and other parts of the country, washing raw sewage through the streets and into the drinking system. Many parts of the country have been without proper drinking water for two weeks.

Cholera is spread by contaminated water and food. Zimbabwe’s outbreak is blamed on years of neglect that have left water treatment plants collapsing and sewage pipes bursting.

In the western Harare suburb of Mbare, children with pails drew water from a stinking open drain Wednesday. A strong odor of garbage and sewage pervaded the narrow streets littered with waste, and from gaping potholes and ditches of standing water left by heavy overnight rain.

Anna Marimbe was hunting for gasoline so her son could drive away bags of garbage covered in flies and insects.

She said residents who had vegetable plots were watering them from overflowing drains and sewers. On the rare occasion when there is piped running water, it is “brown and smelly,” she said.

“We’ve had cholera in our street. Two children were playing in the drains,” she said.

Conrad Sibanda said his 13-year-old sister contracted the highly infectious disease, but there was no room for her at the clinic Monday. He borrowed $50 from a loan shark to pay for the treatment to save her at a private medical facility that accepts only foreign currency.

The country has been in limbo most of the year over disputed presidential elections and hyperinflation in which billions of Zimbabwe dollars are needed to buy a loaf of bread.

In September, President Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s leader since independence in 1980, and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai agreed to share power, but they have been unable to agree on how to divide up Cabinet posts.

Hundreds of thousands of Zimbabweans are thought to be in South Africa illegally. Many were the target of xenophobic attacks earlier this year as migrants bore the brunt of anger over scarce housing and jobs. Sixty-two people were killed and thousands driven from their homes. Authorities are wary that the problems could reignite if there is a massive cholera scare.

“It’s the first time it’s spread here,” says Musina hospital spokesman Edward Malema. He says that three people died at the hospital because they arrived too late for treatment but that the situation is under control.

Hospital authorities are setting up new beds in anticipation of more arrivals.

Three-year-old Prica Nyoni is one of them. She lies listlessly on the tarpaulin but perks up visibly when she gets treatment and allows her mother to bathe her in a bucket.

“At least the water’s clean here,” says her mother, Vunganai Sheko.

• Angus Shaw contributed to this report from Harare, Zimbabwe.

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