JOHANNESBURG, Feb 17 Zimbabwe's humanitarian crisis is deepening, as shown by a growing cholera epidemic, and government restrictions are hampering aid efforts, the medical aid group Medecins Sans Frontieres said on Tuesday.
World Health Organisation figures dated from Monday show that 77,650 people in Zimbabwe have been infected with the water-borne disease since August.
So far 3,688 people have died from the disease, which causes severe diarrhoea, making it Africa's deadliest cholera outbreak in 15 years.
In a report released in Johannesburg, MSF said the cholera scourge had worsened a crisis which has left millions of Zimbabweans grappling with food shortages and malnutrition, as well as an HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Health services have collapsed as there is no money to buy medicines or pay doctors and nurses, triggering a heavy exodus of medical workers to other countries.
"There has been a devastating implosion of Zimbabwe's once-lauded health system, which doesn't just affect cholera patients," said Manuel Lopez, head of MSF in Zimbabwe.
"This is a massive medical emergency, spiralling out of control," he said in a statement accompanying the report.
MSF has been working in Zimbabwe since 2000 and the report said the agency had treated 45,000 patients since the cholera outbreak began.
The report said stringent restrictions by President Robert Mugabe's government made it difficult for aid agencies to work.
"Despite the glaring humanitarian needs, the government of Zimbabwe continues to exert rigid control over aid organisations. MSF faces restrictions in implementing medical assessments and interventions," it said.
"Especially in cases of emergencies where quick action often determines life or death, allowances for a rapid humanitarian response is crucial."
Mugabe's ZANU-PF government has in the past accused foreign aid agencies of working to further the political agenda of its opponents.
Zimbabweans hope the formation of a unity government this week between ZANU-PF and the main opposition MDC will help the country recover from a crisis worsened by the suspension of key foreign aid over policy differences with Mugabe.
Millions of Zimbabweans have fled to neighbouring countries as the crisis at home bites, in search of jobs and better living conditions, and, more recently, medical treatment. (Reporting by Zimkhitha Sulelo)