HARARE (AFP) — President Robert Mugabe claimed Thursday the end of Zimbabwe's cholera epidemic, but aid agencies argued otherwise, as South Africa declared a disaster on its border due to the disease.
"I am happy to say our doctors have been assisted by others, and WHO (the World Health Organization) and they have now arrested cholera," he said in a nationally broadcast speech.
He also denounced calls by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and US President George W. Bush for him to step down, accusing them of plotting an invasion.
"Because of cholera, Mr Brown, Mr Sarkozy and Mr Bush want military intervention. Now that there is no cholera, there is no need for war," he said. "The cholera cause doesn't exist any more."
Shortly after Mugabe spoke, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance said the death toll had risen overnight to 783 with more than 16,000 cases reported.
"If anything is certain in the chaos of Zimbabwe today, it is that the cholera outbreak is not under control," said Rachel Pounds, Zimbabwe director for British charity Save the Children.
"This is a cholera outbreak that is ongoing and urgent," added Henrietta Fore, head of the US Agency for International Development.
"All the government hospitals in Harare are closed. The ability of the government to collect garbage is zero," said US ambassador to Harare, James McGee, during a trip back to Washington.
"Zimbabwe is rapidly deteriorating into failed state status."
UN agencies fear cholera could afflict up to 60,000 people in the coming weeks.
With hundreds of people fleeing Zimbabwe to seek treatment for the deadly but curable disease, South Africa on Thursday declared a disaster area in a district along its border.
So far 10 people have died of cholera in South Africa, and the number of Zimbabweans coming in search of medical care is straining the resources in Limpopo province, a government official said.
"The provincial government took a decision that the whole of the Vhembe district should be declared a disaster area," northern Limpopo provincial government spokesman Mogale Nchabeleng told AFP.
The disaster status frees up funding and helps focus relief efforts.
Nearly 700 cholera cases have been treated in South Africa, according to local health officials, but the disease is only one of the troubles pushing Zimbabweans to flee Mugabe's rule.
Nearly half of Zimbabwe's people need emergency food aid to survive crushing shortages in a nation already hard hit by poverty and runaway inflation, according to the United Nations.
The cholera epidemic has highlighted the collapse of even basic services in Zimbabwe, where running water is spotty and broken sewage pipes lie leaking in the streets.
Aid agencies warn that Zimbabwe's cholera crisis is spreading to neighbouring countries, and the region's shared waterway, the Limpopo River, has tested positive for the disease.
In London, the British Red Cross launched an appeal Thursday to help victims of cholera and chronic food shortages in Zimbabwe and across the rest of southern Africa.
"The rainy season is coming and we know from experience that rains are an aggravating factor for cholera," said Di Moody, British Red Cross programme support officer for southern Africa.
"Continued efforts are needed to make sure the disease is not allowed to run out of control."
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