Haiti battles cholera epidemic, nearly 200 dead

Quake-hit Haiti and its aid partners fought on Friday to stem a cholera epidemic that has killed nearly 200 people and sickened more than 2 000, and officials expect to see more cases before it is contained.

Although the main outbreak area was north of Port-au-Prince, which bore the brunt of the January 12 earthquake, humanitarian agencies were on high alert to prevent the disease from spreading to crowded survivors’ camps in the capital.

The cholera epidemic was the worst medical emergency to strike the poor, disaster-prone Caribbean nation since the devastating earthquake that killed up to 300 000 people.

It was also the first cholera epidemic in Haiti in a century, the World Health Organisation said. But no confirmed cases were reported in Haiti’s rubble-strewn capital, where 1,3-million quake homeless are living in tent cities.

Health teams were closely monitoring the survivor camps and oral rehydration liquids were being prepared for quick use.

The Pan American Health Organisation, the regional office for the WHO, said it had deployed medical teams, medicines and clean water to the outbreak zone around Saint-Marc in the central Artibonite region, and to the Central Plateau to deal with more cases of the virulent diarrheal disease. If left untreated, it can kill victims in hours through dehydration.

“We expect it to get bigger, we have to expect that,” PAHO deputy director Jon Andrus told a briefing in Washington.

He said the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, should be alert to the risk of cholera spreading across the border.

UN officials, citing updated figures from Haitian authorities late on Friday, said 196 deaths had been recorded. They also said a total of 2 634 Haitians had been stricken with cholera as of Friday evening.

‘Horror scene’
One humanitarian worker who visited the main hospital in Saint-Marc called it a “horror scene”.

“The courtyard was lined with patients hooked up to intravenous drips. It had just rained and there were people lying on the ground on soggy sheets, half-soaked with faeces,” David Darg of the US-based humanitarian organisation Operation Blessing International, wrote in an account published on the Thomson Reuters Foundation’s AlertNet website.

Darg said villagers in the countryside around Saint-Marc were begging for clean water.

The central region is Haiti’s breadbasket and took in tens of thousands of fleeing survivors from the January quake.

Besides medicines and rehydration fluids, the United Nations and aid agencies were rushing clean drinking water and chlorine to purify water to affected areas.

“Now the emphasis has to be on treatment, containment and potentially mass vaccination,” Dr Peter Hotez, president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute and chair of the George Washington University Department of Microbiology, Immunology, and Tropical Medicine, told Reuters. He said PAHO needed to consider the viability of an anti-cholera vaccination program in Haiti.

The US government Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said it was sending a team of epidemiologists, health communicators and a cholera laboratory expert to assist the Haitian authorities in fighting the outbreak.

“We are just at the beginning,” Rob Quick of the CDC’s Waterborne Diseases Prevention Branch said.

It was not clear whether the outbreak would affect the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 28 but Haitian Health Minister Alex Larsen appealed to candidates in cholera-affected areas to suspend public rallies.

“Unless the epidemic really gets out of control and incapacitates a huge part of the country, I would think that elections would go on as scheduled,” Hotez said, noting that cholera was not transmitted by person-to-person contact but through contaminated water and food.

Announcing a national emergency prevention programme, Larsen urged people to wash their hands, not eat raw vegetables, boil all food and drinking water, and avoid bathing in and drinking from rivers. The Artibonite River, which irrigates all of central Haiti, was believed to be contaminated.

Larsen urged people not to panic, saying the deadly dehydration caused by cholera could be easily treated by drinking boiled water mixed with sugar and salt. – Reuters

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