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As health system fails, cholera hits Zimbabwe

12,600+ cases since August; food, drug shortages

HARARE, Zimbabwe - Zimbabwe has declared a national emergency over a cholera epidemic and the collapse of its health-care system, and state media reported yesterday that the government is seeking more international help to pay for food and drugs to combat the crisis.

The failure of the southern African nation's health-care system is one of the most devastating effects of the country's overall economic collapse.

Facing the highest inflation in the world, Zimbabweans are struggling just to eat and find clean drinking water. The United Nations says that the number of suspected cholera cases in Zimbabwe since August has climbed above 12,600, with 570 deaths, because of a lack of water treatment and broken sewage pipes.

Residents are getting little help from the government, which has been paralyzed since disputed March elections as President Robert Mugabe and the opposition wrangle over a power-sharing deal.

"Our central hospitals are literally not functioning," Minister of Health David Parirenyatwa said Wednesday at a meeting of government and international-aid officials, according to the state-run Herald newspaper.

International-aid agencies and donors must step up their response, Matthew Cochrane, regional spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, told the Associated Press yesterday.

"This is about supporting the people of Zimbabwe," Cochrane said, adding that aid should include water-treatment plants and more medical staff.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, long among Mugabe's sharpest critics, agreed that Zimbabwe was facing a national emergency and that nations must step in to help.

"Mugabe's failed state is no longer willing or capable of protecting its people," Brown said in a statement yesterday. "The international community's differences with Mugabe will not prevent us doing so. We are increasing our development aid, and calling on others to follow."

Britain has offered 3 million pounds ($4.4 million) and set aside a further 7 million ($10.25 million) in relief aid for Zimbabwe to provide medicine, fund basic health services and help prevent more cholera outbreaks.

The U.S. State Department called the health situation in Zimbabwe worrisome.

"We're obviously very concerned about the health situation in Zimbabwe, as well as the economic and political situation," said spokesman Robert Wood "And so it's incumbent on the Zimbabwean government to cooperate with the international community in trying to deal with some of these issues."

The European Commission is providing more than $12 million for drugs and clean water, and the International Red Cross shipped in more supplies Wednesday to fight the cholera outbreak.

The Herald said that the government declared the state of emergency at Wednesday's meeting, and appealed for money to pay for food, drugs, hospital equipment and salaries for doctors and nurses.

Walter Mzembi, the deputy water minister, said his ministry has only enough chemicals to treat water nationally for 12 more weeks.

High levels of cholera are common in the region, but Cochrane said that it was hitting a population already weakened by hunger and poverty. The death toll could be much higher than the official figures, he added, because many deaths in rural areas were not being recorded at medical facilities.

Increasing numbers of Zimbabweans are also seeking cholera treatment in neighboring South Africa.

Besides shortages of food and other basics, even cash is scarce.

A new 100 million Zimbabwean dollar note went into circulation yesterday in an attempt to ease the cash crunch, and the daily bank-withdrawal limit was increased to ZW$100 million a week - enough to buy just over 10 gallons (40 liters) of clean water.

The new bills and withdrawal limits sparked long lines at banks yesterday.

Mugabe and his opponents have traded accusations over who is to blame for the political stalemate that has persisted while the economic and humanitarian crises worsen. Late yesterday, state television showed Mugabe at a meeting of his party in Harare accusing the main opposition party led by Morgan Tsvangirai of standing in the way of a power-sharing agreement. It was Mugabe's first public comment since returning to Zimbabwe Wednesday following a weeklong trip to Qatar for an international-development meeting.

Mugabe also told his supporters to "get ready for fresh elections" in about two years - indicating that he did not expect his term to last a full five years. Mugabe claimed the presidency after a June run-off widely denounced as a sham.

The proposed unity government, with Mugabe as president and Tsvangirai as prime minister, would likely govern for less than five years, and one of its tasks would be organizing new presidential elections. *