GENEVA The unusually high death rate in Haiti's cholera epidemic is slowing as people become aware of the disease and health experts provide treatment, the World Health Organization said on Wednesday.
The United Nations agency's key aim now is to prevent the disease from spreading south to the capital Port-au-Prince and the camps for homeless survivors of the January 12 earthquake, from the northern department of Artibonite where it is concentrated.
Cholera can kill in 24 to 48 hours, and people in Haiti, which had not had an outbreak for at least half a century, may not have recognized the disease until it was too late.
The death rate is now 7.7 percent -- well above the 1 percent or below that the WHO considers normal, but below the 10 percent seen when the outbreak appeared last week, said Dr. Claire Lise Chaignat, head of the WHO global task force on cholera control.
"We have a serious cholera epidemic going on in Haiti," Chaignat told a news conference. Latest WHO figures show that 3,769 people have caught cholera in Haiti of whom 284 have died, she said. The disease is spread by bacteria in contaminated water and food.
WHO experts believe the disease could now become endemic in the poor Caribbean state, which had previously been spared from the cholera pandemic that reached Latin America in 1991.
Dr. Chaignat said it was too soon to say when the outbreak would peak. "The surveillance system is in place, the early warning is in fact functioning quite well," she said.
The large number of medical staff and aid workers in Haiti since the earthquake mean there is a good chance of controlling the disease.
Health experts had not expected cholera to be among the main risks after the earthquake, which killed half a million people.
But if the disease spreads south, it could infect thousands among the large number of displaced people living in camps near the capital.
People in infected areas need access to safe water, improved sanitation and hygiene education. Authorities need to prevent the disease spreading to unaffected areas and plan how to deal with it if it does.
The WHO is also working with the neighboring Dominican Republic in case cholera spreads there, but Chaignat said closing the border would not stop the disease.
(Reporting by Jonathan Lynn, editing by Tim Pearce)