3 December 2008The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is intensifying its assistance to Zimbabwe’s swelling population of children in need, outlining a four-month response plan to deal with the Southern African country’s multiple crises, including a deadly cholera outbreak, the closure of many hospitals and the collapse of the education sector. The agency announced the 120-day plan yesterday in Harare, the capital, as it warned that women and children are bearing the brunt of the humanitarian suffering engulfing Zimbabwe, where the economy is largely shattered and severe food shortages have become standard. “Schools and hospitals are closing, while teachers, nurses and doctors are not reporting for duty,” UNICEF acting country representative Roeland Monasch said. “It is UNICEF’s top priority to ensure that Zimbabwe’s children get vital life-saving interventions at this critical time.”Under the 120-day emergency response plan, UNICEF will focus on providing basic social services to a country where millions of people lack reliable access to food, water or decent health care.The UN agency will immunize up to 1.5 million children, procure essential medicines for 70 per cent of the national population, provide clean water and sanitation to many communities, distribute ready-to-use nutritional foods at therapeutic feeding centres and unveil a national awareness campaign on cholera prevention.Zimbabwe’s deteriorating humanitarian conditions have been compounded by the ongoing cholera outbreak, which has claimed over 560 lives and led to more than 12,500 recorded cases since August, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO).Over the past eight weeks, UNICEF reported, the country’s education and health-care system have collapsed. The closure of so many schools means many children miss out on a guaranteed meal each day, and the agency hopes that its response plan will boost school attendance rates.UNICEF added that its plan will also take specific account of Zimbabwe’s estimated 250,000 orphans and other vulnerable children – the country is believed to have the highest orphan percentage in the world, at one in every four children – to ensure they have extra support.UN relief officials have been warning about the worsening situation across Zimbabwe, and earlier this week WHO appealed for more funding so it can tackle the cholera epidemic. The agency is procuring emergency supply stocks and deploying a full investigation team to handle the outbreak, including epidemiologists, water and sanitation engineers and social mobilization specialists.