Zimbabwe calls for help as cholera overwhelms doctors

Cholera-hit Zimbabwe today declared a national emergency over the collapse of its health care system.

In an international appeal for help in buying food and drugs minister of health David Parirenyatwa said: "Our central hospitals are literally not functioning."

The failure is one of the most devastating effects of an economic collapse that has left Zimbabweans struggling to eat and find clean drinking water.

Little help is coming from the government which has been paralysed since disputed March elections as President Robert Mugabe and the opposition wrangle over a power-sharing deal.

The United Nations said the cholera, blamed on lack of water treatment and broken sewage pipes, has killed more than 500 people across the country since August.

Matthew Cochrane, spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said Zimbabwe was "absolutely" facing a cholera epidemic, and said he hoped the government's declaration of an emergency would result in international aid agencies and donors stepping up their response.

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

The international Red Cross shipped in more supplies yesterday to fight the epidemic.

The health minister told the state mouthpiece newspaper The Herald: "Our staff is demotivated and we need your support to ensure that they start coming to work and our health system is revived."

High levels of cholera are common in the region, but the Red Cross, said it was hitting a population in Zimbabwe already weakened by hunger and poverty. The death toll could be much higher than the official figures, said the spokesman, as many Zimbabweans, particularly in rural areas, were not seeking medical treatment and their deaths were not being recorded.

Without help, the situation could get much worse. Walter Mzembi, deputy water minister, said the ministry had only enough chemicals to treat water nationally for 12 more weeks.

Zimbabwe has the world's highest inflation, and Zimbabweans face daily shortages of food and other basics.

Even cash is in short supply. A new 100 million Zimbabwean dollar note went into circulation today in an attempt to ease the cash crunch. The amount of cash an individual can withdraw was also increased to 100 million Zimbabwe dollars million a week - enough to buy about 85 pints of clean water. The new bills and withdrawal limits meant long queues at banks.

In neighbouring South Africa, where increasing numbers of Zimbabweans are seeking cholera treatment, president Kgalema Motlanthe planned a cabinet meeting to consider ways to work with other countries in the region, donor organisations and aid groups to address the urgent need for food and other humanitarian needs.