Cholera risk keeps two universities shut

Following a cholera outbreak last year which forced the closure of universities and other institutions of higher learning, the Zambian government announced earlier this month that all universities – except two – could reopen on 22 January, subject to clearance from the relevant local authorities and health departments.

The two that are to remain closed are the University of Zambia in Lusaka and Copperbelt University. In a statement, the Ministry of Higher Education said the University of Zambia and Copperbelt University must remain closed until the issue of student squatting has been resolved.

Minister of Higher Education Nkandu Luo is reported to have described squatting as a recipe for outbreaks and spread of diseases like cholera.

Students at both institutions have been told to vacate the hostels and all scheduled examinations have been postponed.

When the outbreak was first reported in October, the Minister of Health Dr Chitalu Chilufya told Zambia’s parliament that it was being caused by inadequate access to clean water, poor sanitation and infected water sources, among other causes.

Cholera is a diarrhoeal disease that can kill within hours if left untreated. The World Health Organisation says there are an estimated 1.3 million to 4 million cases of cholera each year, and 21,000 to 143,000 deaths worldwide due to cholera.

The University of Zambia’s registrar Sitali Wamundila issued a statement on 5 January following a directive from the government instructing all students on campus to immediately vacate. A similar statement was issued on the same day by Copperbelt University registrar Helen Mukumba. She said the university was postponing all scheduled examinations to a date to be announced.

“In this regard, all students currently accommodated in the students’ hostels at all campuses should vacate the hostels with immediate effect. Examinations that were scheduled to be written during this period have been postponed and new dates will be communicated,” she said.

Late last year the health minister invoked provisions of the country’s Public Health Act and issued a Statutory Instrument 79 which outlawed public gatherings in cholera-affected areas. Earlier this year, Chilufya put the number of cholera cases dating from the declaration of an outbreak on 6 October, at 1,901. He said 49 people had died.