Zimbabwe has declared the fast spreading cholera epidemic that has claimed more than 560 lives so far a national emergency and appealed for urgent international support to avert mass deaths.

The declaration by the government, which for weeks tried to put a brave face amid the worsening crisis, is the first official admission that the extent of the cholera outbreak was under reported.

More people were also reportedly dying of anthrax after they ate cattle dying from the contagious disease.

The villagers are eating the infected meat out of desperation in the face of mounting starvation in a country once regarded as the breadbasket of southern Africa.

In an appeal to donors, Health and Child Welfare Minister, Dr David Parirenyatwa said Zimbabwe's health infrastructure had collapsed and hospitals were in urgent need of drugs, food and equipment.

"Our central hospitals are literally not functioning," he said. "Our staff is demotivated and we need your support to ensue that they start coming to work and our health system is revived."

The once prosperous country, which now faces its worst economic crisis in history has the world's highest rate of inflation with official estimates putting the figure at 231 million percent.

Experienced doctors and nurses have left for better paying jobs in neighbouring countries and those who have remained are in endless job boycotts.

With one of the world's highest HIV/AIDS prevalence rates the country faces an acute shortage of medicines, laboratory reagents, surgical sundries, renal and laundry equipment, X-ray films and boilers.

"The emergency appeal will help us reduce the morbidity and mortality associated with the current socio-economic environment by December 2009," Dr Parirenyatwa said.

Nine out of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces have recorded cholera cases since an outbreak was first reported in Chitungwiza, a town lying 30 kilometers from the capital Harare.

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