UN to the rescue as cholera toll nears 600 in Zimbabwe

December 9th, 2008 - 11:01 pm ICT by IANS  

Harare/Johannesburg, Dec 9 (DPA) A group of senior UN officials has arrived in Zimbabwe to help combat a devastating cholera epidemic, amid allegations from President Robert Mugabe’s government Tuesday that the West is using the epidemic to plan an invasion.The UN World Health Organisation (WHO) said Tuesday its figures showed at least 589 people had died and over 13,960 people been infected so far in a cholera outbreak that began in sewage-drenched poor urban townships in August.

The UN figures are based on figures from clinics and hospitals, meaning the real figure is thought to be much higher. A senior aid agency official told DPA that a further 105 people had died in their communities.

The state-controlled daily Herald newspaper said Tuesday that five WHO experts arrived from Geneva Monday with a promise of technical, logistical and financial aid.

Last week, the regime finally gave in to local and international pressure and appealed for international help over the cholera outbreak.

But by Tuesday, the government was again accusing Western governments of using the epidemic as a front for intervention by the UN Security Council.

Reacting to a fresh round of calls by Western leaders for Mugabe to resign over the health crisis, George Charamba, Mugabe’s chief spokesman said: “They are dead set on ensuring that there is an invasion of Zimbabwe.”

He would not be surprised, he said, if the British and Americans tried to “spring a mission” involving the UN.

The cholera outbreak has been triggered by the collapse of water and sanitation services, part of a general breakdown in basic services and infrastructure.

As taps dry up for lack of water purification chemicals, Zimbabweans have been forced to scrounge water from unprotected sources, including rivers and shallow wells contaminated by sewage.

The health crisis is compounded by the closure of state hospitals because of a strike by medics. Hyperinflation of at least 231 million percent has made their pay worthless.

The Red Cross said in Geneva it was feeding health workers in some clinics to keep them on the job. The UN and the Red Cross also said they were working to tank in clean water and dig wells.

The UN’s children fund (Unicef), which has warned 60,000 people are at risk of cholera, has appealed for $17.5 million to tackle the crisis.

The health crisis, the latest in a country racked by severe food shortages and a breakdown in discipline in the military, has emboldened Western leaders to reissue calls for Mugabe’s departure.

But Zimbabwe’s African neighbours are still pushing a government of national unity, in which Mugabe’s Zanu-PF and Morgan Tsvangirai’s Movement for Democratic Change (MDC) would share power.

A South African government delegation is in Zimbabwe to try to nudge the two parties towards a final agreement on the unity government and assess the humanitarian crisis.

Mugabe, who was second to Tsvangirai in the last credible presidential elections in March and later smashed his way to an uncontested victory in a violent runoff, last week told a group of supporters to “be ready” for new elections.

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