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Visiting Harare’s cholera victims

Today I visited a cholera treatment clinic in Harare where staff have been working non-stop since mid November.

I met a nurse who was now being treated as a patient. She told me that the community has no toilets and repeated water cuts have made access to clean water extremely challenging. Many patients spoke of open sewage around their homes and others spoke of only having one well within walking distance which is so shallow it can easily get infected.

One young mother I spoke to was so weakened by cholera that as she spoke her eyes rolled back and she had to lie down. She complained of cramps and when she showed me her feet they were contorted in pain. Cramping is a symptom of the severe dehydration brought on by cholera.

Seeing her pain, I tried to end the interview, but she insisted we continue. She said she had contracted cholera by eating an unwashed mango – a confession that lifted the atmosphere, as it made her and the ward laugh at the misfortune.

While we spoke we found out that she had a 2-week old baby at home who, in the rush to get the mother to the clinic, had been left at home anyone to feed her. This was also news to the staff, as the lady had hardly been able to speak when she was admitted.

They said that they would speak with her family when they came to deliver her meal (in Africa there is no food in the hospital so patients rely on friends and family to bring food). They would tell the family to bring the child to the clinic each a day to receive expressed milk. The mother was visibly relieved at this suggestion.

We asked the staff what they would do if the family couldn’t bring the baby in each day for her feeds, for example if they lived too far away. They ran through many options, including the last resort of quarantining the mother and baby together to minimise the risk of infecting the baby.

Despite the obvious exhaustion of the dedicated staff, the hygiene standards in the clinic were impeccable – control is paramount in cholera treatment centres. I can’t tell you how many times I washed my hands and feet. I dropped a paper from my notepad and it was quickly whisked off the floor by the nurse and destroyed for fear of infection.

It was clear that this clinic is very well run and the staff are on top of keeping cholera under control. This is evidenced by the fact that cholera in this suburb is on the decline. However, I hear that this is often not the case in the rural clinics and I’m keen to find out more.

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