More than 4,000 people have died in a cholera epidemic in Zimbabwe that has hit at least 85,000 people, Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai said Thursday, warning the figures were likely an underestimate.
Tsvangirai told an emergency meeting of health workers that the epidemic that has swept the country since August was a sign of the collapse of Zimbabwe's health system.
"We have had a clear warning of this in the national trauma of over 85,000 reported cases of cholera, and over 4,000 reported cholera deaths by the end of February 2009," he said.
"This is most likely a dramatic underestimate of the real figures given the unreported cases and deaths in communities," he added.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) on Thursday put the official death toll at 3,955, citing figures collated the previous day.
"Those figures are certainly underestimated since we do not have access to many places," a spokeswoman at its Geneva headquarters said. The WHO are expected to issue updated figures on Friday.
Zimbabwe's health system was once the envy of Africa, but nearly a decade of economic collapse has left hospitals and clinics in a shambles.
Doctors and nurses went on strike for months to protest their salaries, which had been reduced to pittances by world-record inflation.
Health workers began returning to their jobs after Tsvangirai joined a unity government three weeks ago, but they remain without medicine or basic supplies to treat their patients.
Zimbabwe is relying largely on international aid to rein in the cholera epidemic, which has compounded the health crisis in a country where 1.3 million people have HIV.
Improvements in health would follow political stability and economic progress, Tsvangirai said.
"For this new inclusive government, making improvements in people's health will be one of the most important indicators of whether we are making the right choices politically and implementing them effectively."
"The challenges are significant but if the government co-ordinates its activities effectively and if we build upon the relationships with our stakeholders, we will be able to overcome," Tsvangirai said.
He said the health sector needed urgent funding to train more staff and source supplies to avoid dependence on foreign aid.
"While the cholera epidemic has necessitated an emergency response we cannot be permanently locked in an emergency mode," he said.
Tsvangirai became prime minister last month in power-sharing government with President Robert Mugabe, aimed at defusing political tensions and tackling the country's stunning economic collapse.