HARARE, Zimbabwe — A cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe has killed at least 20 people and sickened 2,000 others in the past week, the country’s new health minister said on Tuesday, as he declared a state of emergency in the capital, Harare.
“The city of Harare, they’re the big problem,” the health minister, Obadiah Moyo, told reporters. “This whole problem is a result of blocked sewers. And these were reported and were never repaired for at least two months.”
“As we speak,” he added, “I’m told by the mayor that they are busy repairing the blocked sewers.”
Mr. Moyo said the government had suspended classes at schools in some suburbs of Harare. After visiting a hospital that was treating cholera patients, he said the state of emergency would “enable us to contain cholera, typhoid and whatever is going on.”
Clement Duri, Harare’s director of health services, said that 18 of the deaths had been recorded in the capital, in the northeastern part of the country, and there had been hundreds of cases in Harare’s southwestern townships. The provinces of Masvingo and Manicaland, south and east of the capital, have also had large numbers of cases.
Cholera is a bacterial disease spread by fecal matter coming into contact with drinking water or food; in places with inadequate sewer systems, the bacteria can easily spread to water wells. It causes extreme diarrhea that can lead to fatal dehydration, but when it is treated with fluids and antibiotics, the death rate is very low.
Mr. Duri said that in the affected areas, officials had “decommissioned the bore holes and closed the wells.”
Small outbreaks of cholera are fairly common in Zimbabwe. In late August, an outbreak in the city of Gweru spread to other towns and killed three people. The country had a serious outbreak in 2008 and 2009 that the World Health Organization said sickened more than 98,000 people and killed more than 4,200.
The country’s years of economic suffering have created conditions for the disease to spread: Large numbers of people have moved to the cities to look for work and live in ramshackle housing without running water. Sewer and water systems are overburdened and have fallen into disrepair.
In some cities, officials have said they cannot afford to treat drinking water with decontaminating chemicals, while in others, taps have simply run dry, leaving many city dwellers to rely on well water.
Mr. Moyo did not say whether Zimbabwe had requested help from international organizations. His announcement came just a day after he was sworn in, along with other members of a new cabinet President Emmerson Mnangagwa appointed.
Mr. Mnangagwa took office in November after leading the ouster of Zimbabwe’s longtime leader, Robert Mugabe, and he was elected in a July vote. Zimbabwe was largely cut off economically under Mr. Mugabe, whose government became increasingly autocratic and corrupt, and the country’s new leaders hope to attract outside investment.
Since his appointment was announced last week, Mr. Moyo has been dogged by accusations that he falsified his credentials and abused his authority when he managed a hospital.
Some civil society activists voiced doubt about the new government’s competence to contain the disease.
“Politicians for now are more worried about consolidating power,” said Claris Madhuku, director of the Platform for Youth Development, a pro-democracy group. “Remember you have a government that came to power at first after overthrowing former President Mugabe through a coup and so they want to make sure they are grounded solidly to their thrones.”