The council tried to pass a resolution condemning Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe's president who announced last week that the outbreak had been contained, but council member South Africa argued that the situation was not a threat to international peace and security.

'Profound crisis'

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, David Miliband, the British foreign secretary, said Ban's report was "devastating" and "shocking to the council".

Ban said African countries must exert more pressure on Zimbabwe to end the political stalemate that has contributed to the humanitarian crisis.

"The current cholera epidemic is only the most visible manifestation of a profound multi-sector crisis, encompassing food, agriculture, education, health, water, sanitation and HIV/Aids," Ban told the council.

Mugabe said last week that the outbreak had been contained [EPA]
Ban said 5.8 million people, more than half the population, would need food aid in the months until March, and nine out of 10 provinces had reported cholera cases in one of the worst epidemics in Zimbabwe's history.

Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai, the opposition leader, reached a power-sharing agreement in September but have yet to form a government.

Miliband said the political impasse was caused by Mugabe's refusal to implement the September deal and that while the disease in the headlines now was cholera, the heart of the problem was "the disease of misrule and corruption".

The cholera epidemic – blamed on the deterioration of the country's healthcare and water supply systems - along with Zimbabwe's economic meltdown have drawn new calls from Mugabe's Western foes for the 84-year-old leader who has ruled since independence in 1980, to go.

Mugabe has accused Western countries of trying to use the cholera outbreak to force him out of power.

Ban said in his report to the council that there was "still denial of the gravity of the humanitarian situation in the country and the collapse of state structures".

He said the international community must insist on the immediate formation of a government of national unity.

The Southern African Development Community has taken the lead on mediations which have been conducted on its behalf by Thabo Mbeki, the former South African president.

But Ban said "SADC leaders should display stronger unity and resolve to address the political stalemate".

He added that while he was ready to help wherever possible, neither the government of Zimbabwe nor the mediator welcomed a UN role.