deadliest cholera outbreak in past decade hits southern africa

The waterborne disease has killed more than 4,000 people in seven countries over the past two years. Experts blame severe storms, a lack of vaccines, and poor water and sewer systems.

Sandra Mwayera wailed as her older brother slouched next to her in the back seat of a car — he had died from cholera as he waited for treatment among dozens of others outside a hospital in Zimbabwe’s capital, Harare.

“My brother! My brother! Why have you abandoned me?” she pleaded. “Come back, please. Come back!”

In neighboring Zambia, inside the 60,000-seat National Heroes Stadium in the capital, Lusaka, rows of gray cots lined rooms at a makeshift treatment center where 24-year-old Memory Musonda had died. Her family said they were not informed until four days later — the government buried her, and they have yet to locate her grave.

Ms. Musonda’s uncle, Stanley Mwamba Kafula, said the family was “disturbed” and “heartbroken.”

Active outbreaks of cholera, a waterborne bacterial disease, are now raging in five countries in central and southern Africa, ranging from as far north as the Democratic Republic of Congo, and down to Mozambique.

The epidemic has spread over the past two years, infecting more than 220,000 and killing more than 4,000 people in seven countries. This is the deadliest regional outbreak in terms of cases and deaths to hit Africa in at least a decade, said Dr. Patrick Otim, who oversees the cholera response for the World Health Organization in Africa. Public health workers in Africa say it is rare to see so many cases in so many countries at the same time.

People filling up bottles and buckets with safe drinking water in Harare, Zimbabwe. The surest way to prevent cholera is to keep water sources for drinking and washing separate from sewage, public health experts say.Jekesai Njikizana/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Cholera cases in Africa had actually been on a downward slide and hit a low in 2020, he said. But then came an uptick in West Africa in 2021, followed by the current outbreak in the southern part of the continent.

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