The World Health Organization says it is organizing a huge U.N. effort to combat a deadly outbreak of cholera in Zimbabwe.  It says an emergency health plan has just got underway to control the current outbreak, which has claimed nearly 500 lives since August.  Lisa Schlein reports for VOA from Geneva.  
The World Health Organization has sent an emergency team of about 20 international experts to Zimbabwe.  The experts will work with WHO's national staff in the country as well as with staff from other organizations to try to contain the cholera epidemic.

The outbreak, the worst since 1992, has infected more than 11, 700 people in Zimbabwe.  It has spread to neighboring South Africa.  Cases also have been reported in Botswana and Mozambique.

WHO said it aims to contain the epidemic and to reduce deaths by providing safe water and sanitation, particularly in health facilities.  The plan also aims to isolate infected people, ensure early case detection, improve access to health care and ensure adequate care.

WHO Spokeswoman, Fadela Chaib, told VOA the challenges are enormous because Zimbabwe's overall health service has been steadily declining for the last five years.

"There is no good surveillance and detection system.  Less than 30 percent of the country is covered by surveillance.  So, we do not know ... what is the extent of the health needs.  But, we suppose they are huge.  The health system is collapsing.  The health professionals are not working because the social and economic conditions are really very bad.  So, they are trying to make livings in other sectors ... in the country.  They are not well paid, if they are paid," she said.

In addition, Chaib said Zimbabwean health facilities face a massive shortage in required medicines.  She attributed this to a decline in local manufacturing capacity, weakened by a shortage of foreign currency.

The country's health situation is facing another threat from an anthrax epidemic.  The organization, Save the Children, reported a deadly outbreak of anthrax has killed two children and one adult and killed 160 livestock, as well as two elephants, 70 hippo and 50 buffalo.

Elizabeth Byrs is a spokeswoman for the U.N. Organization for the Coordination of Humanitarian Assistance.  She told VOA that anthrax does not spread from person to person.  But she said people can get ill and even die if they eat the meat of an animal that has been infected with the disease.

"And, it is of concern because many people eat infected meat because they buy their meat from unlicensed butcheries and these unlicensed butcheries get their meat from sometimes infected cattle.  And there is also a concern because of food insecurity for the poorest population because the poor people they eat carcasses of dead animals because they do not have anything to eat," she said.

Save the Children reported very little anthrax vaccination has taken place in Zimbabwe during the past five years.  It said the strain found in the Zambezi Valley is particularly virulent.  It warned the outbreak could wipe out at least 60,000 livestock if it is not controlled.