Staggering numbers of Zimbabweans are at risk of cholera, following the deaths of 775 people and infections among more than 16,000 since August, World Health Organization officials report. Half of the country’s 12 million people could be exposed to the disease, which is spread through contaminated food or water and poor sanitation, and an estimated 60,000 are believed to be at risk of contracting it.

The outbreak reflects a stark decline in health in Zimbabwe since last year, when there were just 65 cases of cholera and four deaths, according to WHO statistics. Basic government services in the country, including the provision of water and garbage collection, have collapsed under President Robert Mugabe, who insisted yesterday that the epidemic is over, today’s New York Times notes. The disease has spilled into neighboring South Africa, where 460 cases and nine deaths have been reported.

Cholera, transmitted by the Vibrio cholerae bacterium and causing dehydration from severe diarrhea, is often thought of as a 19th century disease that killed millions of people in Europe, Africa and the Americas over the course of six pandemics, WHO notes. But a seventh pandemic, begun in 1961 in South Asia, is still raging in developing countries where crowding and poor sanitation are common, the agency says.

Two years ago, WHO received reports of 236,896 cholera cases and 6,311 deaths from 52 countries. But it’s believed that only 10 percent of cases are reported.

Political problems elsewhere in Africa have magnified other recent cholera outbreaks. Since October, displacement from fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) has spurred an outbreak in an unstable region of the Central African nation that had affected at least 1,000 people as of mid-November. Last year 28,269 people there caught cholera and 600 died of it.

A WHO spokesperson didn’t immediately respond to a request for an update on cholera in the DRC.

Image of Zimbabwean woman with cholera/Médecins Sans Frontières via Flickr