As Morgan Tsvangirai announces that he will join a government of “national unity” with Robert Mugabe, the World Health Organisation reveals that 3,000 people have died of cholera in Zimbabwe since the epidemic started in August last year. More than 60,000 have caught the disease.
Cholera may have been present in India as early as the 4th century BC, but the first pandemic struck the world in 1817. It appeared for the first time in Britain in 1831, claiming its first victims in Sunderland, and killing about 60,000 people across the whole country. Doctors were completely baffled by its cause – a fungus, infected air, electricity? The Lancet lamented; “we are at sea in a whirlpool of conjecture.”
During the third pandemic in the 1850’s – generally regarded as the most deadly – Queen Victoria’s anaesthetist Dr John Snow, who practised as a family doctor in London’s Soho, famously discovered the link between cholera and contaminated water, but it was decades before the medical profession as a whole accepted his conclusion.
Nowadays cholera can be treated very effectively with antibiotics and mixtures that replace the fluids and salts lost by the body, but that doesn’t help in a country like Zimbabwe, where Mr Mugabe’s regime has brought the collapse of sewage systems and water supply, and the closure of hospitals.