The Executive Director of the U.N. Children's Fund says Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe blames his country's cholera epidemic on the International community.  UNICEF chief Ann Veneman met Mr. Mugabe while on a visit to Zimbabwe over a week ago to review humanitarian operations in the cholera-stricken country. 

Ann Veneman is the first head of a U.N. agency to visit Zimbabwe in three years.  She says she saw a country that was broken, a country whose health-care, water and sewage systems had collapsed.

She tells VOA she was very disturbed at the rapidity with which the cholera epidemic was spreading throughout the country.

"When I was there, I said this epidemic is not under control and it is clear that it is expanding," Veneman said.  "So, we have to address the cholera situation.  There is a lack of healthcare workers.  They are not coming to work because of the spiraling inflation.  And so, these are the kind of issues that need urgent attention by the humanitarian community."  

When Veneman was in Zimbabwe 10 days ago, there were 42,000 cholera cases.  The World Health Organization reports that number has now gone up to 57,000 and more than 3,000 people have died from the disease.

Last month, President Robert Mugabe publicly claimed there was no cholera in Zimbabwe.  He has since retracted that statement.  UNICEF chief Veneman says when she met Mr. Mugabe it was clear that he recognized there was a problem with cholera.

"He recognizes that there is a breakdown of the water and sewage systems," she said.  "He seems to place responsibility and blame on the international community for not supporting the country with the resources that are needed to address these problems."  

Veneman says she does not share that view.  She says there needs to be a shared responsibility.

"The blame cannot be placed only on the international community," Veneman said.  "But, I think the country has to have leadership in addressing the problems, in dealing with the spiraling inflation that is creating the difficult issue of getting health care workers to come to work, to get teachers to come to work.  I mean this is a serious problem.  Their systems are breaking down because people are in such dire need because their currency is virtually worthless."  

Cholera normally is a preventable and easily treatable disease, with a one percent fatality rate.   The World Health Organization reports the death rate in Zimbabwe is an extremely high 5.7 percent.

UNICEF recently appealed for $17.5 million to enact a 120-day emergency plan to try to contain cholera.  Among its activities, UNICEF is providing people with access to clean water and better sanitation.  It is providing medicines and nutritional feeding for vulnerable children and women.