President Robert Mugabe declared on Thursday there is "no cholera" in Zimbabwe and insisted the southern African country's health crisis is over, even as the United Nations raised the death toll from the epidemic to 783.
The UN said 16,403 cases have been reported in Zimbabwe, which is already reeling from rampant poverty and world-record inflation due to its collapsed economy and political volatility. But several aid organizations said the UN's figure was a conservative estimate of the toll in Zimbabwe.
During a funeral for a state official who died in a car crash last weekend, Mugabe lashed out at critics who have been calling for his ouster — and even military intervention — as concerns about Zimbabwe's deepening humanitarian crisis mounted.
Mugabe condemned what he described as a plot by Western leaders to invade Zimbabwe and overthrow its government.
"So now that there is no cholera, there is no cause for war anymore. We need doctors, not soldiers," he said during an hour-long address broadcast live on state television.
Mugabe's comments came after the Limpopo provincial government in northern South Africa declared Vhembe district a disaster area after learning from health authorities that upwards of 660 Zimbabwean refugees had recently been treated for the disease.
"The report [from health authorities] indicated that with the massive influx of Zimbabwean nationals, most of who are infected with cholera bacteria, we are headed for [a] major challenge than we initially anticipated," read a statement on the Limpopo provincial government website.
It noted that out of eight people who had died from cholera, six were Zimbabwean nationals.
"Our health facilities are already congested," the website read. "On the other hand, our health practitioners are gradually finding it difficult to cope with the daily increasing number of patients they have to attend to."
Cholera, which is an intestinal infection contracted through contaminated drinking water, is largely preventable but can lead to death if untreated.
'Well past time' for Mugabe to leave: Rice
Earlier this week, Zimbabwe's Health Minister David Parirenyatwa reportedly declared a national emergency over its cholera epidemic and the collapse of its health system, according to state-run media.
The burgeoning outbreak has been blamed on lack of water treatment and broken sewage pipes in a country that is undergoing an economic meltdown.
The problem has been exacerbated by political deadlock as a power-sharing deal between Mugabe's ZANU-PF party and opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai's Movement for Democratic Change remains stalled over the allocation of ministries.
Tsvangirai last month warned of imminent catastrophe if he and Mugabe could not reach an agreement quickly on how to form a government.
The economic and now health crisis has prompted some, both within and beyond Africa, to call for Mugabe's resignation, including U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
"It's well past time for Robert Mugabe to leave, that's now obvious," she said last Friday.
"There has been a sham election, there was a sham power sharing. We are now seeing the humanitarian toll."
Britain's Africa minister Mark Malloch-Brown also rejected Mugabe's claim there is no longer a crisis in Zimbabwe.
"I don't know what world he is living in," Malloch-Brown said during a one-day trip to South Africa, where he visited a Johannesburg church housing 1,600 Zimbabweans who have fled the country.