Cholera threatens Haitian capital

AFP, PORT-AU-PRINCE

Mon, Oct 25, 2010 - Page 1

More than a dozen people have died of cholera in central Haiti, adding to concerns that the outbreak is edging closer to the densely populated capital, officials said on Saturday.

The sudden cholera epidemic has in recent days killed 220 people, mainly in northern Haiti, and sent officials scrambling to contain a wider outbreak, 10 months after a January earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation.

Hundreds of thousands of people are still living in impoverished tent cities, particularly around Port-au-Prince, where sanitation is poor and relief groups say the diarrhea-causing illness could spread rapidly.

Regional health director Dieula Louissaint said 12 more people died in the Artibonite Department in northern Haiti on Saturday, boosting that area’s toll to 206, while 14 people died in central Haiti closer to the capital.

“We cannot continue to treat cholera in this structure where we are also seeing other kinds of patients,” Louissaint said. “We need to establish specific treatment centers.”

About 3,000 people have been admitted to hospitals and health centers near the northern city of Saint-Marc, which is struggling to cope with the overwhelming rush of sick patients as the nation grapples with its first cholera outbreak in over a century.

More than 50 inmates at a prison in the center of the country have been infected with cholera and three have died, officials said.

“The situation is under control. The population should not give in to panic, but people must take hygienic measures seriously,” warned Jocelyne Pierre-Louis, a physician with the Haitian public health ministry.

Haitian President Rene Preval and Minister of Public Health Alex Larsen toured regions affected by the epidemic on Saturday, as authorities vowed they were working to provide clean water to residents.

On Friday, the health ministry asked the UN operation in Haiti to take charge of distributing medication that is being sent by international donors.

The Canadian government has offered to set up a military hospital in Haiti and the US has pledged to set up large tents to treat patients on the ground.

Canada, which has its own sizeable Haitian population, also offered to send C$1 million (US$975,000) to help fight the spread of the outbreak.

“Canada is worried about the risk that this serious disease spreads to other communities,” Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.

The US branch of the Red Cross said on Saturday that three large shipments of supplies had arrived in the Americas’ poorest country.

Doctors Without Borders has plans to set up a field hospital in Saint-Marc in order to treat cholera patients and Oxfam said it sent five emergency specialists to Artibonite to “set up water, sanitation and hygiene programs for an estimated 100,000 people.”

Contamination of the Artibonite River, an artery crossing Haiti’s rural center that thousands of people use for much of their daily activities from washing to cooking, was believed to be the epidemic’s source.

However, the rapid spread of the disease, which is caused by a bacterial infection in the small intestine, raised fears of a much larger health emergency, particularly if it reaches the camps around Port-au-Prince.

“It is a scenario of catastrophe,” Mirlande Manigat, the frontrunner in Haiti’s presidential elections, told broadcaster Radio-Canada during a visit to Montreal.

Aid agencies have 300,000 doses of antibiotics in the country already, Catherine Bragg, the UN deputy emergency coordinator said in New York on Friday.

About 10,000 boxes of water purification tablets, 2,500 jerry cans and the same number of buckets and hygiene kits are being distributed in the affected area.