Zimbabwe cholera outbreak has roots in corruption

When cholera struck Zimbabwe last summer, international aid poured into the African country. Despite those resources, however, fatalities increased among those infected. “One in 20 people was dying, and 80 percent of those deaths were preventable,” said Chris Beyrer, M.D., M.P.H., professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, at a talk at the School of Public Health in February. Beyrer investigated the health care system in Zimbabwe last year on behalf of Physicians for Human Rights.

The reasons for the epidemic and its high mortality rates, Beyrer said, stem from the corruption of President Robert Mugabe’s administration, which enriched itself at the public’s expense. “I have never seen a health care system collapse so extreme,” Beyrer said. Public hospitals and clinics shut their doors, and for political reasons, the government had handed over public water supplies to cronies. As a result, untreated sewage flowed into reservoirs of drinking water.

“If you want to create a cholera epidemic, this is the way to do it,” Beyrer said. “It is very hard to imagine a public health solution to these problems without addressing the politics.”