In grip of Cholera, Zimbabwe marshalls messengers to spread the word on hygiene

By Caroline Gluck
As cholera has spread across Zimbabwe, more than 1,600 people have lost their lives to the waterborne disease.

A song composed and performed by some of Zimbabwe's best known musicians talking about how to prevent the spread of cholera is set to become the country's unofficial anthem—at least if the government has its way.

The song,"Cholera—Chenjerawo," which translates as "Cholera—Beware," will be played on radio stations across the country every 30 minutes. Performed by a group of musicians calling themselves Artistes for Health, it's the brainchild of some of Zimbabwe's top performers including Tanga Wekwa Sando and Oliver and Sam Mtukudzi who wanted to do something to help stop the rapid spread of the epidemic—the country's largest recorded outbreak. Cholera has now affected every province in Zimbabwe. More than 33,000 suspected cases have been reported and the disease has taken more than 1,600 lives.

The first cholera case was reported in August in a suburb of Harare. This week, at a meeting attended by government ministers, provincial governors, traditional chiefs, health experts, the commander of Zimbabwe's defense forces, diplomats, and the media, the government announced what it called a nationwide blitz to control, cure, and eliminate the disease.

"Information is the greatest tool in fighting this epidemic," declared Dr. Edward Mabhiza, permanent secretary at the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare.

The plan is to recruit as many as 20,000 volunteers to help spread messages about good hygiene. Radio jingles and messages in the papers and on television will be used in the campaign. Pamphlets and posters carrying information on how to prevent cholera are to be distributed everywhere, from beer halls to church entrances, and everyone, from provincial chiefs to soldiers, is being urged to play a part in the national effort.

Theatre groups will be also enlisted. Oxfam is already using drama groups to promote key health messages as it distributes hygiene kits to vulnerable communities across the country.

Using music, theatre, dance and humor, the groups entertain the crowds. But it's entertainment with a message, as the shows also highlight the need for careful hand washing and food hygiene.

Yet even the government, which acknowledges there is still some way to go before it can declare the epidemic under control, concedes that it needs more than educational messages to fight the cholera epidemic.

The country's sewage systems have broken down. Rubbish is no longer collected and piles up rotting on streets. Hyperinflation has caused many health workers to stay away from work, unable to live on their salaries which are paid in rapidly devaluing Zimbabwean dollars. More boreholes need to be drilled to provide clean water sources for communities. And many Zimbabweans are struggling to feed themselves.

There are worries that the epidemic could spike with the approach of the peak season of heavy rains which could spread contamination to shallow wells. There are also concerns about flooding and the movement of infected people within Zimbabwe and to other neighboring countries.

Education, though, can go a long way. And the call for action to mobilize the nation is an important step forward.

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