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Zimbabwe Declares Cholera Outbreak a National Emergency

Zimbabwe's government pleaded for international help Thursday after declaring a cholera epidemic that has thus far killed 565 people a national emergency and admitting that hospitals are no longer working.

Children gathered around an empty water bottle

Clean water has become a black market commodity

"The government yesterday (Wednesday) declared the cholera outbreak ... and the malfunctioning of central hospitals as national emergencies and appealed to the donor community for assistance to alleviate the situation," the state-run Herald newspaper reported Thursday.

The state of emergency comes just two days after the European Commission promised 9 million euros ($11.4 million) in funds to aid agencies helping in the crisis. It also alarmed British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who promised to boost aid.

"Mugabe's failed state is no longer willing or capable of protecting its people. Thousands are stricken with cholera, and must be helped urgently," Brown said in a statement released by his office Thursday.

"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 suit."

Hospital supplies urgently needed

Things on the ground, howver, do not appear to be looking up yet. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported 565 deaths and 12,546 recorded cases of cholera in the poverty-wracked nation.

"Our central hospitals are literally not functioning,” Health Minister David Parirenyatwa told a meeting of aid groups, according to the newspaper. “Our staff is demotivated and we need your support to ensure that they start coming to work and our health system is revived."

Hospitals urgently need drugs, food and equipment to combat the growing crisis, according to Parirenyatwa. Laboratory, surgical and laundry equipment, X-ray films and boilers were also needed. In addition, he said, the health ministry needs $1.5 million a month as incentives for government health workers who have gone on strike over pay.

Declaration overdue

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights (ZADHR) told AFP news service that the state of emergency was overdue.

"They should have done that two or three weeks ago when the figures of cholera related deaths were still low. However, it's better late than never. At least they now realize that this is a serious matter," said ZADHR chairman Douglass Gwatidzo.

Authorities initially deflected calls for a declaration of national emergency, blaming the crisis on Western sanctions against President Robert Mugabe. The EU and US have imposed targeted sanctions on senior Zimbabwean officials because of human rights abuses. International donors from these countries have, however, been providing most of the drugs used in government health service including those that are now used to treat water and victims of cholera.

Still, the state-run water company ran short of a water purifier on Saturday, drying out water taps in the capital of Harare. As a result, the deputy minister of water and infrastructural development, Walter Mzembi, found himself appealing for help as well on Wednesday.

"I am appealing for at least 40 million rand (3.1 million euros, $3.93 million) to purchase chemicals for the next two months and the money is needed between now and Monday," he said, according to Herald.

Charities already helping on the ground

Charities have been quick to action in response. CARE International, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been building latrines throughout the country to prevent further spread of the disease.

UNICEF likewise announced emergency measures Tuesday to increase health services, provide nutritional supplements and widen access to safe water in Zimbabwe.

Its effort will include buying essential medicines for 70 percent of the country's 11 million citizens, immunization for 1.5 million children and emergency support and protection for 250,000 orphans and vulnerable children.

OCHA spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs also told AFP news agency that the UN has been asked to redouble their efforts to help fight the epidemic.

"The needs are great, we lack the most basic supplies such as blankets and plates in the hospitals, as well as soap and water purification tablets," said Byrs.

ICRC said over 13 metric tons of medical supplies arrived in Harare on Wednesday night, while the World Health Organization said it would supply $340,000 worth of drugs and supplies.

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