By Rosemary Nalisa, Namibia Red Cross Society

The capital city of Windhoek is on high alert after an outbreak of Hepatitis E that has claimed three lives, while 554 people are undergoing treatment. Namibia has been battling Hepatitis E since mid-December 2017, after the first cases were detected in an informal settlement of Windhoek. The number has since been rising steadily.

Hepatitis E is a liver disease spread through drinking water that has been contaminated by human faeces. The disease can be fatal, especially for pregnant women.

In response to this outbreak, the Namibia Red Cross Society—in collaboration with the United Nations, the Government and the City of Windhoek—has trained 63 volunteers, who are conducting door-to-door social mobilization activities on hygiene promotion.

Naemi Heita, Secretary General, Namibia Red Cross Society, noted that the National Society was well positioned to play a crucial role in the response activities due to its vast knowledge and expertise in water and sanitation issues, as well as thanks to its network of volunteers, most of whom are residents of the affected areas.

On the ground

“Our volunteers are already on the ground conducting community mobilization and hygiene promotion activities in the affected informal settlements. It is therefore important that all stakeholders pull together to ensure that activities, such as water supply and the placement of mobile toilets, are carried out speedily, to stop the spread of the disease,” said Heita.

The Secretary General also noted that the current emergency response is massive and complicated and needed to be tackled by all stakeholders through proper coordination and cooperation with the affected people. “Long-term plans should be put in place to address sanitation using community-based approaches, and thereby increase ownership and sustainability,” she added.

Residents of informal settlements, such as Havana, are more at risk of contracting Hepatitis E and other waterborne diseases—due to poor hygiene conditions.

President Hage Geingob of Namibia visited the affected areas of Havana and Goreangab Dam, which host an estimated population of over 100,000, and cautioned the residents against poor hygiene practices such as engaging in open defecation, littering and sale of food and vegetables in open and dirty locations.

“We must all realise that this disease is not hereditary, like cancer and other ailments, but spread through poor hygiene evident in this area. If we do not change our way of life, we will contract this disease or even die,” said President Geingob.

Makeshift toilets

Tuyenikelao Hamalusa, 37, lives in Havana settlement. He is unhappy about the sanitation conditions. “Some residents have constructed makeshift toilets and showers, resulting in dirty and smelly water flowing to residential homes,” he said. “We are continuously exposed to a stench of dirty water and urine flowing through our yards and exposing our families to Hepatitis E. Now we have learned that cholera has also been detected. We call on the authorities to intervene before the situation gets out of hand.”

Meanwhile the city authorities, the government and other stakeholders are working around the clock to ensure that the communities are assisted with potable water and additional mobile toilet facilities, while the construction of more facilities is in the pipeline.

President Geingob’s visit also coincided with a cholera scare detected a few days after a student from a nearby school affected by Hepatitis E tested positive for cholera. The student has since been treated and discharged from hospital, but the ministry of health is monitoring the cholera case and following up on everyone who had links to it.

Representatives from the Namibia Red Cross Society, UNICEF and World Health Organisation (WHO) informed the head of state about the sanitation challenges in the city’s informal settlements. They highlighted the need to involve communities in the clean-up of the environment and construction of toilets. This is in line with the United Nations Sanitation Protocol known as the Community Lead Total Sanitation (CLTS), which requires communities to take the lead in improving their sanitation.