Relief agencies in Zimbabwe say they are ramping up emergency programs to combat a cholera epidemic that has infected more than 11,000 people and killed nearly 500. The emergency comes as soldiers rampaged in the capital, Harare, over declining living conditions. VOA's Scott Bobb reports from our Southern Africa Bureau in Johannesburg.

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, says it is launching a four-month emergency response in Zimbabwe because of what it calls the "closure" of many hospitals, failing social services and the collapse of the country's education system.

Spokesperson Shantha Bloemen says years of decline in water, sanitation and health services have caused a cholera epidemic that has spread to nine of Zimbabwe's 10 provinces and into neighboring countries.

"The immediate concern is making sure that we provide life- saving responses which continue to be providing emergency safe water, doing health education for communities and keeping the cholera treatment centers going," said Bloemen.

UNICEF has been trucking clean water to high-density residential areas, distributing water purification tablets and drilling wells in neighborhoods to prevent the spread of disease. 

Humanitarian groups say the epidemic is the result of deteriorating public services due to years of economic decline and hyper-inflation.

Soldier rampage adds to citizen stress

Some 100 soldiers Monday clashed with police in Harare after taking money from foreign currency dealers and looting some shops. Media reports say the soldiers rampaged because they could not collect salaries from cash-strapped banks.

The Zimbabwean government Tuesday blamed the clashes on undisciplined troops and said military police were patrolling to prevent further incidents.

Frustration is rising in Zimbabwe over a power sharing dispute between the ZANU-PF party of President Robert Mugabe and the Movement for Democratic Change party of Prime Minister-designate Morgan Tsvangirai.

Women, children most affected by crisis

Bloemen of UNICEF says the crisis is affecting women and children of Zimbabwe the most.

"For your average Zimbabwean family now, life has become incredibly tough and this is reaching the breaking point. And I think we have to remember we have a responsibility to respond and that people can't be held hostage to politics so we need to make sure we continue to provide the humanitarian relief that is needed," noted Bloemen.

But donor agencies say they are running short of funds partly because of the global economic downturn.

The World Food Program says that next month it will run out of funds needed to feed five million people, one-half of the Zimbabwean population, needing food aid. UNICEF has appealed for $9 million to fund its latest effort.