Wed, Jul 11, 2012 - Page 7 News List

Rumors fly as Cuba tackles rare cholera outbreak

FUELING THE FIRE:Foreign media have published conflicting reports on cases of infection, while a US politician has said the Cuban government is hiding information

AP, HAVANA

Authorities in eastern Cuba are in full prevention mode to contain a rare cholera outbreak amid fears that it may have spread to the capital, distributing chlorine and water purification drops and quarantining hospital patients with diarrhea until they are checked for the disease.

In the eastern city of Manzanillo in Granma Province, cars crawl through the streets with loudspeakers reminding people of the importance of good hygiene, several residents said. However, there has been no travel quarantine on the city and the streets are calm even if some people are jittery.

The precautions follow an official announcement last week of three deaths and 53 diagnosed cases of the waterborne disease, which had not been seen in Cuba for many years. A Cuban health ministry bulletin said the outbreak was under control, but the Cuban government has not followed up the announcement with more information, fueling rumors and contradictory stories.

The BBC reported over the weekend that at least one case of cholera had been detected in Havana, without naming its sources. The Miami Herald, quoting an apparent dissident who lives in Granma Province, said more than 1,000 people had been sickened, while exile blogs such as Cafe Fuerte have reported additional deaths, citing residents and unnamed officials. US Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a staunch anti-Castro congresswoman from Florida, accused the Cuban government of withholding information to avoid scaring away tourists.

There were also reports that airports in southeastern Mexico had issued a medical alert and were screening passengers from Cuba. Mexican officials denied that.

“There has not been even a single passenger suspected of carrying cholera,” said Luis Vazquez, spokesman for the Yucatan state health agency. “Cuba is a country with a very good epidemiological system. They don’t even let [sick] passengers leave.”

Cuba has a well-organized civil defense system capable of rapidly mobilizing government agencies and citizens’ groups, as it does for tropical storms and hurricanes. Brigades of workers routinely scrutinize every dwelling and property to eliminate standing water where mosquitos bearing another tropical disease, dengue, can breed.

The country also has battalions of well-trained doctors and nurses, many of whom played a key role in fighting a much deadlier cholera outbreak in nearby Haiti after that country’s devastating earthquake.

The Manzanillo outbreak happened in poor outlying neighborhoods that rely on wells for their water. The Cuban health ministry said in its announcement last week that it was collecting samples from the wells, sealing off tainted water supplies and disinfecting hydraulic systems. Doctors were going door to door to look for people running a fever and to advise residents about preventive measures such as using chlorine drops to disinfect drinking water.

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