JOHANNESBURG, Nov 24 (Reuters) - Hundreds of Zimbabweans have sought treatment in neighbouring South Africa as the death toll from a cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe rises, health officials said on Monday.
The World Health Organisation has said 294 people have died from the epidemic and close to 6,000 have been infected. Zimbabwe's state-run Herald newspaper put the death toll at 281.
Zimbabwean health officials have blamed the outbreak on water shortages and poor sanitation facilities.
The problem has been worsened by Zimbabwe's health infrastructure which has crumbled due to a severe economic crisis, which western countries and Zimbabwe's opposition has blamed on President Robert Mugabe's mismanagement.
Many hospitals in the country, which has the world's highest inflation rate of more than 230 million percent, have been shut.
Health officials in the South African town of Musina, on the border with Zimbabwe, said three people had died of the disease in South Africa, while 168 had been treated.
"At the moment we only have 17 people who are still admitted to Messina Hospital. The others have been treated and are not in the hospital," Phuti Seloba, spokesman for the Musina Health Department told Reuters, adding new cholera patients were arriving every day.
Cholera is a water-borne disease that causes vomiting and acute diarrhoea and can rapidly lead to death from dehydration. It spreads fastest in situations with poor sanitation or where contaminated water is used for drinking or preparing food.
Most towns in Zimbabwe suffer from intermittent water supply, broken sewers and uncollected garbage.
The WHO said stamping out the outbreak would be difficult because of a limited availability of drugs, medical supplies and health professionals in Zimbabwe.
Medical charity Doctors Without Borders (MSF) said earlier this month that health officials in Zimbabwe were overwhelmed and up to 1.4 million people were in danger if the epidemic continued to spread.
South Africa has pledged to help Zimbabwe fight the cholera outbreak. Health officials from the two countries met in the Zimbabwean border town of Beitbridge at the weekend.
"We agreed that we will work together to fight the outbreak," Seloba said, without giving details.
South Africa's Talk Radio 702 reported that the South African government and local non-governmental organisations were preparing to send a relief mission to Zimbabwe on Tuesday and would take water purification tablets, clean water in tanks, tents and blankets.
The WHO and its partners including the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) are distributing emergency health kits, water purification tablets, oral rehydration salts and other essential supplies and training volunteers in hygiene promotion in Zimbabwe's worst-hit areas.
(Editing by Janet Lawrence)
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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