Be Alert but Calm over Cholera Risk

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By Surihe Gaomas WINDHOEK Namibians must remain vigilant, but calm, over the perceived threat of a cholera outbreak, in the wake of cholera outbreaks in other southern African countries like Angola, Zimbabwe, Zambia and Congo. This message was conveyed by Dr Kalumbi Shangula, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health and Social Services, to senior health officials, development partners and journalists at a function yesterday. “We should prepare ourselves as if we are having a cholera outbreak, and we have already alerted the whole medical staff. We suspected that there might be a cholera outbreak in Namibia and we therefore took specimens for lab tests,” said Shangula. He urged the public to remain calm and not to panic, as the necessary steps have been taken to handle the health challenge. “The situation has now stabilized, but all health workers must remain alert and be on the look-out for suspected cases,” said Shangula. The Ministry has also dispatched investigation teams to the affected areas in the country. Since November 7 last year, the country’s northern regions have been gripped by what Dr Shangula termed “an unusual increase in diarrhoeal diseases”, with the first detection in the Kunene Region, which was reported from Otjimuhaka Clinic in Opuwo district on the Angolan border. Up to now, more than 286 cases of diarrhoea have been reported in Opuwo district, 55 cases in Outapi district in Omusati Region and one case in Ohangwena Region. Of these cases, six have been confirmed through laboratory tests as Vibrio Cholera, coming mostly from neighbouring Angola. Three of the cases were from Opuwo district, two of which were imported from Angola; one from Outapi district, imported from Angola; one from Okahao district, imported from Angola; and one from Eenhana district, also imported from Angola. To date, seven people have died from acute diarrhoea or gastroenteritis since the outbreak of diarrhoeal diseases in the affected areas. Five of these seven cases occurred in Opuwo district during November/December last year and two in Outapi district where the last death of a schoolboy was on February 2. Shangula noted that of all the deaths, none proved to have been caused by cholera except perhaps for the child who died at home whose specimen was not taken. “We don’t know what the boy died of, but one cannot say it was cholera,” he added. The 10-year-old learner from Ombuumbu School fell sick early this month after eating a meal, and died at home before his family could take him to the nearest clinic. Eleven other people who attended the funeral of the young boy were admitted to the Outapi Hospital the following day where one of them died. The remaining patients were treated and discharged. Latest laboratory specimens show that three of these cases were confirmed to be cholera but, according to Shangula, none of the patients have died from cholera in Namibia. “We are only seeing cholera cases now in Namibia. There has been no remembrance ever of cholera cases here – these are new cases,” added Shangula, further pointing out that acute diarrhoea or gastroenteritis is quite common this time of year in southern Africa due to the frequent rains that result in people drinking or making use of dirty water from rivers, streams and dams. However, according to the most recent reports from the World Health Organization and other sources, it appears that a widespread cholera outbreak is currently taking place in southern Africa. “It seems that the epicentre or source is situated in Angola, spreading from there to Zambia (Lusaka), Zimbabwe (Harare), Pointe Norte (Congo) and now to Namibia,” explained Shangula. Most of these outbreaks have occurred in informal settlement areas around cities and towns. What has made matters worse is that water supply in the towns of both Ruacana and Opuwo were cut due to huge debts owing to NamWater, forcing people to seek alternative but unhygienic water, thereby resulting in acute diarrhoea cases. The Ministry of Regional and Local Government, Housing and Rural Development has, however, intervened to have Ruacana resupplied with water. “The provision of potable water is very important. We should therefore not put the lives of people before any commercial interest,” added Shangula. When asked why Namibia is not facing a cholera epidemic that could have spilled over from neighbouring Angola, Shangula said: “It does not necessarily mean that what is happening in other SADC countries is happening here. That’s why we need to do laboratory tests of the specimens we took. You need a proper diagnosis that it is in fact cholera.”