PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti’s government and its aid partners fought on Friday to contain a cholera epidemic that has killed at least 138 people in the nation’s worst medical emergency since the Jan. 12 earthquake.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the virulent diarrheal disease, which had affected 1,526 people as of late Thursday, would be the first cholera epidemic in a century in the disaster-prone Caribbean nation, already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.
The Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies were rushing doctors, medical supplies and clean water to Saint-Marc in the Artibonite region, the main outbreak zone north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.
The region is Haiti’s central breadbasket and had received tens of thousands of fleeing survivors from the Jan. 12 quake. The earthquake killed up to 300,000 people and injured thousands more, traumatizing the long-suffering population.
Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive said the government was very worried about the disease spreading to the quake survivors’ camps in Port-au-Prince.
“Yes, it is a cholera epidemic,” Dr. Michel Thieren, an official with the Pan American Health Organization, the regional office for WHO, told Reuters.
It was not possible to say if the epidemic was at its peak, Thieren said, but it was definitely not over.
Haitian President Rene Preval had confirmed cholera was the cause of the fast-spreading, acute diarrhea that overwhelmed hospitals in central Haiti in recent days with weakened, dehydrated patients. Many of the victims died in a matter of hours.
Officials had been awaiting the final results of laboratory tests to determine the cause of the diarrhea occurring mostly in the Lower Artibonite and Central Plateau regions.
Reports of more cases were still coming in.
“Now we are making sure people are fully aware of precautionary measures they have to take to prevent contamination,” Preval told Reuters after meeting through the night with government officials.
Cholera usually comes from consuming water or food contaminated by cholera bacteria and is not likely to spread from person to person.
Amid fears the deadly disease could spread to crowded quake survivors’ camps in the wrecked capital, where some 1.5 million people are living under tents and tarpaulins, Health Minister Alex Larsen announced an emergency prevention program.
He urged the population to regularly wash their hands, not to eat raw vegetables, to boil all food and drinking water, and to avoid bathing in and drinking from rivers. Aid groups were sending medicines and clean water supplies to affected zones.
The Artibonite River, which irrigates all of central Haiti, was believed to be contaminated.
“This disease is very dangerous,” Larsen said. “It can kill in three hours because once the diarrhea starts it doesn’t stop.”
He 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.
“Haiti has not had cholera in at least 100 years ... The population is in a weakened state and the situation is serious,” Dr. Claire-Lise Chaignat, head of WHO’s Global Task Force on Cholera Control, told Reuters in Geneva. She spoke before Preval confirmed cholera as the outbreak cause.
She said the diarrhea killing adults, children and the elderly signaled the impoverished population had no immunity to the bacteria, which thrives in unsanitary conditions.
Hospitals in Haiti had been supplied with 10,000 water purification tablets, as well as oral rehydration salts, WHO spokeswoman Fadela Chaib said.
“We are concerned about the speed with which it has spread,” she told a news briefing in Geneva.
Health teams were closely monitoring the camps and oral rehydration liquids were being prepared for quick use.
The short incubation period of two hours to five days increases the potentially explosive patterns of outbreaks, especially among malnourished or displaced people living in unsanitary, crowded conditions, according to the WHO.
Despite initial fears of epidemics immediately after the earthquake, a massive international relief effort has prevented any serious outbreaks of infectious diseases in the capital.
No cholera victims from the latest outbreak had been reported in Port-au-Prince so far. The worst-affected areas in the central region were Douin, Marchand Dessalines and zones around Saint-Marc, Haitian officials said.
Additional reporting by Stephanie Nebehay in Geneva; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Bill Trott
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