As sure as the sun will rise, folks in Harare’s oldest suburb of Mbare know that the rainy season brings with it typhoid or cholera.
news in depth BY PHYLLIS MBANJE
Barely eight years after a cholera outbreak wreaked havoc in Zimbabwe, claiming over 4 000 lives with Harare and Mbare in particular, being the epicentre, fresh typhoid cases are causing sleepless nights in the populous suburb.
Overcrowded and poorly serviced by the Harare City Council’s refuse removal teams, Mbare has been hardest hit by the typhoid outbreak that has already killed two people out of the over
1 000 suspected cases.
According to statistics released by Health and Child Care minister David Parirenyatwa on Friday, Harare has 22 confirmed cases of typhoid.
Two hundred and fifty cases of the water-borne disease are still being investigated.
The government has isolated Mbare as the source of the outbreak in Harare and a visit to the capital’s oldest suburb revealed why the residents are bearing the brunt of the medieval disease.
Matapi and Matererini hostels are typical examples of a conducive environment under which typhoid thrives.
With their dilapidated sewer systems that are teeming with human excreta, the area is a perfect breeding ground for salmonella typhi bacteria, which causes typhoid.
From the outside, the two hostels look like a junkyard with heaps of uncollected garbage.
There is a strong stench emanating from the rotting food and diapers.
But nothing compares to the horror inside the blocks of flats which were never meant for families in the first place.
Like any compound, the place is quite vibrant and being a school holiday, there was a lot of movement and activity on the Friday afternoon.
There was loud music playing everywhere and hordes of people were lounging on window sills, open spaces and in doorways of their tiny cramped apartments.
Laundry was hung on windows as flat dwellers were afraid of thieves that snatch clothes right from the washing line.
A foul smell pervaded the whole compound but it did not seem to bother the inhabitants.
The passage at the Matapi block was dark even though it was just after mid-day.
Down the dirty passage, the news crew stumbled on a greenish liquid on the floor, which was flowing from a dilapidated toilet.
The putrid smell was pervasive and big flies known locally as green bombers made a happy sound as they buzzed in and out of the toilet.
The sight was not for the faint-hearted.
The little cubicles do not have doors and the toilet pans and holes were overflowing with human excreta.
In the men’s section, worms were squirming in the urinary.
There were sewer pipes that appeared to have long packed up and many hung wide open.
There has been no running water for ages and no one is responsible for cleaning the toilets.
“Some of us cannot use those toilets, especially the children. We would rather use the bush,” said a young woman who was busy washing her plates just outside the building.
“It is obvious that the way we are living here is risky, especially for the children.
“If there is an outbreak here, it will not be easy to contain. We will all die,” said another woman who pleaded with our news crew to highlight their plight.
“Maybe help will eventually come when you tell our story. Did you see our toilets?
“Are they fit for any human being? What about our children?” she asked.
The bathrooms, like the toilets, have no doors, exposing women to voyeurs.
“Some perverts even make it a habit of sneaking into female bathrooms just to have a glimpse of naked women,” an elderly woman said.
There is just one borehole for about six blocks of flats and it is located near a heap of garbage.
Children ran around playing in the streams of sewer water gushing out of burst pipes apparently oblivious of the lurking dangers.
“That is why we do not pay a cent to council. There is no service delivery here,” said another middle-aged woman.
A more horrific tale is told at Matererini flats. The people there literally wash dishes dodging human waste material occasionally dropping through burst sewer pipes from floors above.
“We used to put a plastic container at strategic points so that the faecal matter would collect there and we later dispose it but the container broke,” said a man who has stayed at the flats for years.
A few weeks ago two women exchanged harsh words after their children fought over faecal matter.
“One of the children was spattered with human excreta on his face and this angered his mother who then confronted the other child’s parent,” said a neighbour who witnessed the furore.
The outbreak of typhoid has exposed just how critical it is for the local authority to address the plight of Mbare flats dwellers.
The city council provisionally singled out a borehole in the area as the source of the problem.
The borehole is not properly secured, a factor which might cause runoff water and sewer to seep through into the borehole.
“The cases are coming mostly from Mbare and are being treated at Beatrice Infectious Diseases hospital,” said Harare City Council director of health services Prosper Chonzi, who also added that their team was in Mbare clearing blocked sewer pipes.
Meanwhile, council’s health department in collaboration with Medecins Sans Frontiers (MSF) has set up a typhoid treatment centre at the Edith Opperman Clinic in Mbare to treat patients free of charge.
The treatment centre is manned by nurses and doctors from both MSF and council, 24 hours a day.
An ambulance has also been put on standby to ferry patients with severe symptoms to the Beatrice Road Infectious Diseases Hospital.
Typhoid symptoms are fever, loss of appetite, skin rash, abdominal pain, headache, generalised body pains and diarrhoea or constipation, explained Daniela Garone, MSF medical coordinator in Zimbabwe.
In 2012 then Local Government minister Ignatius Chombo said the government had plans to pull down the 58 shanty hostels including Matapi, Nenyere, Shawasha, Mbare and Matererini, originally built to house black migrant labourers during the colonial era.
However, the promise was never fulfilled and over the years more and more homeless people kept coming, overwhelming the already fragile ablution system, which can no longer cater for the over 100 000 people.
“The responsible authorities should give us alternative accommodation before demolishing this place. It is not fit for humans,” said a young man who was selling pirated music discs.
Typhoid, an infectious bacterial fever, can be treated with antibiotics, but it still kills more than 220 000 people worldwide each year, according to the World Health Organisation.
Meanwhile, South Africa’s National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) has issued an alert for typhoid fever to those returning from Zimbabwe.
The country’s health department is already on high alert following an outbreak of typhoid cases in neighbouring Zimbabwe.
The institute has warned the disease could spread to neighbouring countries.
Head of the outbreak response unit at the institute, Kerrigan McCarthy said health care practitioners and returning travellers need to be aware of the symptoms.
“The NICD has received reports of an increased number of cases of typhoid in Harare in Zimbabwe,” McCarthy said
“We are very at risk of having acquired typhoid and we really want to release an awareness and alert to clinicians and also returning travellers to be aware of the symptoms.” — Additional reporting by SABC