Friday, February 27, 2009

Cholera’s harsh toll in Zimbabwe serves as health reminder

Thanks to public health practices like sanitation, many diseases from centuries-past are rare in the industrialized world. Take cholera, for example. The water- and food-borne intestinal disease, which has caused at least seven pandemics since the 19th century, is not a major threat in the United States.

Unfortunately, cholera still wreaks havoc in some parts of the world. Among the worst off? Zimbabwe. Thousands of Zimbabweans have died in the past year and continue to get sick and die from this horrible epidemic. Why? Poor water and sanitation, as well as a weak health care system, are to blame. Rainy season makes it worse.

Leadership has also been a problem in fighting the epidemic in Zimbabwe. The country's president, Robert Mugabe, initially denied that there was a cholera problem in the country and then declared it contained even as health experts said it was getting worse.

Cholera is easily treatable with antibiotics and rehydration, but sadly, the treatment is often out of reach in many countries. Zimbabwe, where life expectancy is about 40 years, is a country with a broken sewerage system, where soap is hard to come by and where hospitals lack medicines and staff.

While cholera's wrath is largely an ocean away, its toll is a grim reminder of the importance of preparing for and protecting our communities against disease. Even so, we're not immune. Overseas travelers can be at risk and can bring the disease back to the United States.

Want to know more or help? Visit the World Health Organization for the latest update on the cholera epidemic. Several humanitarian agencies such as Doctors Without Borders are working hard to save lives and could use your support.

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