Fragile Haiti fears cholera could spread to quake camps

People receive serum at St. Nicholas hospital in Saint Marc, Haiti, Thursday, Oct. 21.
People receive serum at St. Nicholas hospital in Saint Marc, Haiti, Thursday, Oct. 21. AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery

PORT AU PRINCE, Haiti — The number of Haitians infected with cholera and cholera-like symptoms continued to mount Saturday as panic spread that the deadly disease could reach the quake-battered capital where thousands of people are living in unsanitary camps.

Meanwhile, government officials and international aid workers asked people to remain calm but stay vigilant and be sure to wash their hands with soap and stay out of rivers.

As of Friday evening, the Haitian government reported that 2,364 Haitians have been hospitalized for cholera throughout the affected Artibonite region in central Haiti, and 194 have died.The death toll was expected to rise. Partners in Health, or PIH, reported Saturday that the number of new cases at the hospital in St. Marc — where the ill have gone to seek treatment — on Friday was lower than new cases on Thursday. But with only three days of data, it isn't possible to say that this represents a positive trend, PIH said.

PIH also reported that at least 10 cases have been found in Gonaives, a port city in the Artibonite that's located 34 miles north of St. Marc.The outbreak has raised questions about the presidential election scheduled Nov. 28. Haitian President René Préval says he wonders if the election, which would bring thousands of people closer together, might exacerbate the epidemic. He also raised the question of continuing a public election campaign that began eight days ago.

The country's worst fear is that the disease could reach the 1.5 million people living in about 1,000 unsanitary camps in Port-au-Prince and other cities ravaged by the Jan. 12 earthquake.

"We are very, very worried," said Claude Surena, a physician with Haiti's health ministry.

Health officials still are trying to figure out the cause of the outbreak. Workers say cases began showing up Tuesday, and many just assumed it was another bout of diarrhea in a country where that's common.

But they quickly realized it was something much worse because the death rate quickly climbed to 10 percent of the cases. On Friday, government health experts officially confirmed what they were seeing was the contagious and deadly disease.

The last known case of cholera in Haiti was in 1960, authorities said.

The outbreak is the worst medical crisis in Haiti since the Jan. 12 earthquake claimed up to 300,000 lives.

However, the disease didn't start in the tent cities, as many had feared. It happened along the central corridor, which was spared from the devastating quake.

The Ministry of Health declared the worst-affected areas were the towns of Drouin, Marchand Dessalines and areas around St. Marc, a port city 55 miles north of the capital.

In a matter of hours, mothers had lost children, husbands had lost wives and entire communities were grieving.

Meanwhile, the government and the international community have stepped up public awareness campaigns on best sanitation practices and started to deliver bottled water and bars of soap.

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