Poor hygiene and food-handling among the poorest sectors of Peru's population has sparked a dramatic increase in the number of deaths from a two-month-old cholera epidemic, doctors and government officials say.

Nine million Peruvians, or nearly half of the country's 22 million people, are vulnerable to the disease unless they alter these habits, the experts said.Almost 89,000 people had fallen victim to cholera since the epidemic began in the northern port of Chancay in January, the health ministry Thursday said, an increase of 11,000 from last week.

It said 535 people had died since the epidemic began in January, a 38 percent increase over the previous week's figure of 388.

"The mortality rate increased from 0.5 percent to between 1.2 percent and 1.5 percent because people do not wash their hands, eat in unhygienic conditions and drink water that has not been boiled," said a government official who did not want to be identified.

Dr. Carlos Moreno, in charge of the cholera program at Lima's Arzobizpo Loayza hospital, said poor conditions of hygiene was the main reason for the increase in the number of cholera cases.

"Basically it's because people have stopped taking the measures recommended by the health ministry, they lost their fear of eating food sold by street vendors and because of a scarcity of water in Lima," he said, referring to a strike last week by waterworks employees.

Cases of the disease are rare among those Peruvians who have access to running water and toilets.

The overwhelming majority of victims of cholera, spread by contaminated food and water, live in poor neighborhoods.