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Zimbabwe cholera toll rises as rainy season comes

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ANGUS SHAW | November 30, 2008 07:42 AM EST | AP


HARARE, Zimbabwe — Zimbabwe health authorities say 425 people have died in a cholera outbreak and they are concerned it will worsen with the onset of the rainy season.

More than 11,000 people have been sickened since August, the official Sunday Mail newspaper reported. The number of cases has shot up in the past two weeks.

"What I am afraid of is that now that the rainy season has come, all the feces lying in the bushes will be washed into shallow wells and contaminate the water," the Sunday Mail quoted Health Minister David Parirenyatwa as saying.

The Zimbabwe Association of Doctors for Human Rights has accused the government of trying to downplay the impact of the outbreak, which is blamed on collapsing sewage and water facilities and uncollected garbage.

The doctors group says that many people are dying unseen and uncounted at home. It says that collapsing hospital and clinic facilities are also to blame for the unusually high death rate from what should be an easily treatable disease.

Parirenyatwa denied the group's claim that the death toll is closer to 1,000.

"I phone all the country's 10 provinces every day to get the correct figures from professional doctors who have no reason to lie. ... We give out correct figures availed to us," the newspaper quoted him as saying.

He fretted that the water crisis made it difficult to prevent the spread of the disease.

"Good personal hygiene like washing hands after visiting the toilet and before taking any food is very important. The only hindrance is that even if we tell people to first wash their hands before eating, how will they do so if there is no water?" he added.

Cholera has spread over the border into South Africa, prompting international aid agencies to launch emergency relief efforts to prevent it from worsening even more.

Parirenyatwa told the newspaper that the capital Harare had 6,063 suspected cholera cases and a total of 152 deaths by Nov. 28.

Unconfirmed reports Sunday said seven prisoners died in recent days in an overcrowded jail in the town of Chinhoyi, 70 miles (110 kilometers) northwest of Harare, and 13 others were treated for the disease.

Prison officials refused to comment, saying information from the prison was "restricted."

City authorities in Harare on Friday offered free graves to impoverished families of cholera victims.

Zimbabwe used to boast one of Africa's most vibrant economies, with an excellent health system and solid infrastructure. The nation is now in a state of collapse with runaway hyperinflation, mass unemployment and shortages of most major commodities, including gasoline and food.

The United Nations estimates 5.5 million people, nearly half the population, will need food aid by January.