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Typhoid fever outbreak in South Africa: The full breakdown

On Sunday 20th February, 50 cases of typhoid fever were reported in South Africa across the Western Cape and the North West. The cases have climbed since then, with the Western Cape reporting 64 cases total while Gauteng have reported 18 cases. There has been a lot of fake news circulating social media about the virus, so here is everything you need to know about the outbreak in South Africa thus far.

What is typhoid fever?

According to WHO, typhoid fever (otherwise known as enteric fever) is an infection caused by the bacterium Salmonella Typhi and can be life threatening if left untreated. An estimated total of 11-20 million people worldwide is troubled by typhoid fever each year, and approximately 128 000 – 161 000 annual deaths result from the infection.

It is spread by water or food that has been contaminated, and thus is often found in areas with poor sanitisation and inadequate water municipality sources. Once the bacteria enter the body, it multiplies and develops in the bloodstream, and is treatable by antibiotics. There are also available vaccinations to prevent the virus.

The symptoms for typhoid fever include:
  • Headache
  • High fever
  • Stomach pain
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • A rash (less common)

Typhoid Fever in South Africa

Typhoid fever is an endemic in South Africa, meaning that it is regularly found in the area. Phaahla explains that there are usually a low number of cases each year, an average of 200 cases of the bacterium in South Africa annually, and that in 2021 there were less than 150 reported cases.

The National Institute for Communicable Diseases (NICD) have acknowledged three clusters of the bacterial infection in the Western Cape: Cape Town, the Cape Winelands and Garden Route. One cluster has been identified in Kerksdorp in the North West.

There has been a lot of false information circulating social media stating that typhoid fever has been identified in various municipal water sources around South Africa. On Monday 21st February, the NICD stated that there is no proof behind these claims. Even in the locations where outbreaks have been identified, there has been no evidence to indicate that the bacteria have entered our municipal water sources.

Mathume Phaahla, the Minister of Health in South Africa has also spoken on the topic,

“There have been misguided news that our municipal water is contaminated with these bacteria. This is totally untrue. What we want to emphasise is that there is no public risk in terms of contamination of drinking water.”

How to protect yourself against the virus:
  • Washing your hands with soap regularly, especially before preparing food.
  • Use safe water: if you are worried about safety of your drinking or cooking water, it is recommended to boil it for a minute before use in a clean container.
  • Practice food safety: ensure that your food is clean, that raw and cooked foods are kept separately, that your food is cooked properly and that your food is kept at the correct temperature.

While typhoid fever being present is threatening, it is avoidable when following the necessary precautions to protect yourself, and is treatable. Medical professionals are confident in the developed antibiotics and vaccines that are widely available. Furthermore, cases for typhoid fever in South Africa, as mentioned above, are decreasing annually. The perceived threat of the virus has also been heightened by fake news, and the NICD has confirmed that the virus has not been found to be contaminating any municipal water sources in South Africa.

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