GENEVA (Reuters) - A cholera epidemic which has already afflicted more than 60,000 people in Zimbabawe is spreading in the rural heartland, the World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday.
The deadliest cholera outbreak in Africa in 15 years is gaining momentum, with 1,493 new cases including 69 deaths reported in the past 24 hours alone, it said.
The intestinal infection has killed 3,161 Zimbabweans since August in an outbreak that has now surpassed the WHO's previous "worst case scenario."
Heavy rains and the year-end holidays, when many urban Zimbabweans traveled to visit relatives in villages, have fueled the spread of the water-borne disease, the United Nations agency said.
"The epidemic is really present in the provinces, it's jumping from one area to another. It's mushrooming," Claire-Lise Chaignat, WHO global cholera coordinator, told a news briefing in Geneva.
"That is why it is so out of control, because it is difficult to anticipate where the next hot spot is going to occur," she said.
More cases were reported this week than the previous one but the number of deaths appeared to decline, Chaignat said.
Cholera spreads through contaminated food and water and can cause severe dehydration and death without proper treatment.
While cholera is normally both preventable and treatable, an economic and political crisis In Zimbabwe has caused the near-collapse of health services.
'DRASTIC ACTION' REQUIRED
Some 5.2 percent of patients catching cholera in the country are now dying, a very high fatality rate, according to the WHO.
Two of every three deaths are recorded outside of the country's 270 cholera treatment centers, meaning most victims die at home, mainly from sheer dehydration.
Eric Laroche, assistant WHO director-general for health action in crises, said the death toll was already far too high.
"The bad news is that it is going to continue," he said.
"Unless we have drastic action we are not going to get out of the epidemic soon. We have to make an extraordinary effort to respond to an extraordinary situation, otherwise people are going to succumb and die even more," he told reporters.
The WHO asked donor countries to help pay the salaries of thousands of Zimbabwean medical workers, to provide oral rehydration salts and chlorine tablets to needy communities, and to raise awareness about cholera prevention and treatment.
The appeal was made as U.N. aid officials tried to rally international support for Zimbabwe, where they said some 5.5 million people need U.N. assistance to cope with dwindling food supplies and hyperinflation.
Elisabeth Byrs of the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said that no contributions have yet been received for a $567 million appeal for Zimbabwe this year.
"The humanitarian situation in Zimbabwe is acute and worsening," she told Reuters. "Aid is more necessary than ever. This is a critical moment."
(Editing by Angus MacSwan)