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updated 8/20/2012 4:16:21 PM ET 2012-08-20T20:16:21

An outbreak of cholera in Sierra Leone has infected more than 10,000 people and killed at least 176, authorities said as they appealed for international assistance.

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Underscoring the severity of the situation in the West African country, President Ernest Bai Koroma declared the outbreak an "emergency issue" on Thursday. Minister of Health and Sanitation Zainab Hawa Bangura told The Associated Press that Koroma has set up a task force to prepare a budget that will be needed to stem the outbreak.

"All of this is the aftermath of the 11 years rebel war when we had a huge rural-to-urban migration and a huge population clustered in the urban area where adequate provision has not been made for water and sanitation. This is what we have been witnessing today, " she said.

She said that in the capital, Freetown, there have been about 100 deaths during the past month, especially in congested areas where there is the problem of water and sanitation.

"It is important to request help from the international community in order to spread the mobilization of resources," she said.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said there has been a spike in reported cholera cases since mid-July and the onset of the rainy season. Over the past 5 weeks, 6,000 cases alone have been confirmed and many other cases might not been officially reported.

"This current outbreak of cholera has the potential to be devastating and is proving very difficult to control," said Amanda McClelland, IFRC Emergency Health Coordinator. "We are particularly concerned by the rising numbers in Freetown which suffers from overcrowding, poor sanitation and lack of safe water access — all factors which contribute to this deadly disease."

Cholera is an infection of the small intestine, contracted by eating or drinking contaminated food or liquids, that can cause acute diarrhea and vomiting and can kill within hours. Neighboring Guinea, parts of Mali and Niger have also been affected by the outbreak, the Red Cross said.

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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