The first cholera outbreak in the Western Hemisphere since early this century has killed nearly a hundred people in Peru, and experts say the death toll could soar.

World Health Organization officials in Geneva said this week that the epidemic could spread quickly throughout Latin America if not controlled. It is the sixth major cholera outbreak in recorded history.At least 96 people have died of the intestinal disease so far, and more than 12,600 cases have been reported, officials say. The number affected is already more than one-fourth the 48,000 cases registered worldwide in 1989, according to WHO statistics.

News reports say the number of cases in Peru is actually much higher because the government has not taken into account reports of cholera cases in the highland and jungle regions.

"There is panic abroad," Health Ministry spokesman Raul Fernandez said Wednesday. "In the 24 hours it takes the symptoms to develop, a carrier could board a plane to Miami and spread the disease there.

"We've been declared a `fourth world' country because of this epidemic," he said.

Neighboring Chile and Ecuador have denied reports the disease has spread to their countries.

But Ecuador said Thursday that it may prohibit all Peruvians from entering the country.

Cholera is highly contagious, and its symptoms range from diarrhea and dehydration to vomiting and cramps. It is transmitted mainly by food and water contaminated by the feces of cholera victims.

Meanwhile, President Alberto Fujimori says his tough austerity policy won't change despite the resignation of his prime minister, chief author of a program aimed at fighting hyperinflation and attracting foreign capital.

Juan Hurtado Miller resigned Thursday as both prime minister and economy minister. Fujimori quickly appointed conservative Carlos Bolona to take the economy portfolio.

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(Additional information)

Little risk for Americans

American travelers to Peru run little risk of cholera despite an outbreak that has killed scores of Peruvians, U.S. health officials say.

The federal Centers for Disease Control noted Thursday that returning U.S. travelers ran a risk of less than 1 in 500,000 during a cholera outbreak in Asia, Africa and other areas from 1961 to 1981.

"The risk to U.S. travelers of acquiring cholera in endemic areas is low," the Atlanta-based CDC said. "Cholera vaccination confers only brief and incomplete protection and is not recommended."

The CDC said impure water, unclean produce or inadequately cooked seafood may be responsible for the outbreak that has struck primarily in Peru's eastern coastal areas.