The World Health Organization (WHO) is stepping up efforts to deal with the cholera outbreak in Zimbabwe, following reports of well over 500 deaths and more than 12,000 cases. However, the WHO says this estimate may be too low. Dr. Claire-Lise Chaignat, head of the World Health Organization's Global Task Force on Cholera, explains the WHO's response to the outbreak.

"We've had a country team on site in Zimbabwe (for) several years. Of course we have our WHO office, which is based in Harare, with a sub-regional team that is there. And in fact, they're supporting the Ministry of Health in responding to this epidemic," she says.

Accurate information on the disease is essential, but she says that current data may not indicate the full scope of the problem. "You know the current difficulties in communication and with moving within the country. And of course we have quite accurate information from the three hotspots, which are Harare city and suburbs and Mudzi on the Mozambican border and Bay Bridge on the South African border, but what is happening within the country in the provinces far away from the hotspots, we don't know very much what is happening there. And that's we think this is an under reporting of what is currently happening in Zimbabwe," she says.

Dr. Chaignat describes the situation as "very challenging" because of the lack of accurate data and the fact that Zimbabwe's healthcare system is in bad shape. "That means we need to coordinate with all the different partners. We need to support the staff of the Ministry of Health," she says. Such support, she says, could encourage ministry and healthcare workers currently not at their posts to return. She says that WHO must also work with other UN agencies and NGOs on the ground.

The WHO official says that communities can help cholera patients until medical care arrives. "They should already re-hydrate the patients at home. As soon as they get diarrhea, they have to feed them and give them oral re-hydration salts. Or, if they don't have it available, they have to give rice water, carrot soup or this type of product so that they can be re-hydrated while they are on the way to go seek treatment," she says.