Haiti cholera epidemic said to ease

But specialists warn the threat is far from over

Potable water was distributed yesterday near a tent city outside Port-au-Prince in an effort to stem a cholera outbreak that has killed at least 259 people in a rural region about 45 miles away. Potable water was distributed yesterday near a tent city outside Port-au-Prince in an effort to stem a cholera outbreak that has killed at least 259 people in a rural region about 45 miles away. (Thony Balizaire/ AFP/ Getty Images)
By Jacob Kushner
Associated Press / October 26, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A cholera outbreak showed signs of easing yesterday after killing more than 250 people in a sweep through central Haiti, but specialists warned that the earthquake-devastated country’s first bout with the disease in decades is far from over.

Aid groups were joining the government in a race to purify water and warn people throughout the countryside and the capital, Port-au-Prince, where the Jan. 12 earthquake left more than a million survivors in squalid stick-and-tarp camps that are ripe for the waterborne disease.

“The worst part is over, but you can always have a new spike of cholera,’’ said the Health Ministry director, Gabriel Timothee. He said the situation is beginning to stabilize with only six new deaths reported since Sunday.

Haiti, which had not suffered a cholera outbreak in at least 50 years, is the latest developing country to be afflicted by the disease that sickens an estimated 3 million to 5 million people a year and kills 100,000.

It is common in regions such as the Indian subcontinent and sub-Saharan Africa — an outbreak in Nigeria this year killed at least 1,500 people, according to the United Nations — but it has been rare in industrialized nations for the past 100 years.

The disease, spread through feces-contaminated drinking water or food, leads to vomiting and watery diarrhea which, if not treated, can kill a person within hours. It is preventable with clean water and sanitation, but both can be hard to find in some parts of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

Some of the 1.3 million people living in the capital’s tent camps already fear the worst.

“I’m afraid because the water we’re drinking here is not treated properly. Anytime I drink the water it makes my stomach sick,’’ said Joseph Sidsen Guerry, 20, who lives in the small Jeremie camp in central Port-au-Prince.

Health groups working to keep the disease from spreading beyond the central valley where it emerged last week are focusing on treating the ill, strengthening medical centers with isolation wards, and educating the public about the disease.

“The biggest challenge for us is the amount of misinformation,’’ said Julie Schindall of Oxfam, which trained the host of a radio call-in program to promote good hygiene practices in rural Petit Riviere, near the outbreak’s epicenter in the Artibonite region. “We have to make sure they know what is true and what is not true.’’

Schindall said some Haitians were still drinking from the contaminated Artibonite river because others did so without getting sick.

Water purification tablets and oral rehydration salts — used to counteract potentially lethal dehydration caused by diarrhea — have been widely distributed in the region, where the river or rainwater remain the only water source for many, said Louise Ivers, an official with the aid group Partners in Health.

For now, officials say their efforts have been making gains.

Timothee said at least 259 people have died since early last week and more than 3,300 have fallen ill, but he emphasized that no cases had been confirmed as originating in the crowded capital. Five patients were diagnosed with cholera in Port-au-Prince over the weekend, but officials said they got sick elsewhere.

Michel Thieren, a program management officer for the Pan-American Health Organization, said the outbreak has been largely confined to the Artibonite. But he warned: “We are expecting a gradual spreading of cholera in the country, and the way it will do that is still unpredictable.’’

In an unrelated outbreak, the World Health Organization said yesterday that Pakistan has confirmed 99 cases of cholera in the period from the start of the floods in late July to the end of September. In Nigeria, more than 1,500 people have died from a cholera outbreak this year, according to international health officials.

Aid groups in Haiti stress that community outreach is a key part of their prevention efforts.

The California-based International Medical Corps has enlisted Haiti’s Boy Scouts to distribute fliers educating people about proper hygiene, spokeswoman Margaret Aguirre said. Her group also was dispatching mobile teams of doctors and nurses equipped with IV fluids, “cholera cots’’ with a hole for human waste, and disinfectant.

Specialists said the disease is likely to spread eventually to the Dominican Republic, which is on the same island as Haiti.

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