Haitis President Confirms Cholera OutbreakBy REUTERS
Filed at 12:37 p.m. ET
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti's government and its aid partners fought on Friday to contain a cholera epidemic that has killed at least 140 people in the nation's worst medical emergency since the January 12 earthquake.
The World Health Organization (WHO) said the virulent diarrheal disease, which had affected more than 1,500 people in central Haiti, 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 outbreak zone north of Port-au-Prince. No cases were immediately reported in the crowded capital.
One humanitarian worker who visited the main hospital in Saint-Marc called it a "horror scene."
"The courtyard was lined with patients hooked up to intravenous drips. It had just rained and there were people lying on the ground on soggy sheets, half-soaked with feces," David Darg of the U.S.-based humanitarian organization Operation Blessing International, wrote in an account published on the Thomson Reuters Foundation's AlertNet website.
Darg said villagers in the countryside around Saint-Marc were begging for clean water.
The region is Haiti's central breadbasket and had received tens of thousands of fleeing survivors from the January 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 crowded quake survivors' camps in Port-au-Prince.
"It is a cholera epidemic," Dr. Michel Thieren, an official with the Pan American Health Organization, the regional office for WHO, said. It was not possible to say if the epidemic was at its peak, he said, but it was definitely not over.
It was not clear whether the outbreak would affect the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for November 28 but Health Minister Alex Larsen appealed to candidates in cholera-affected areas to suspend public rallies.
Earlier, President Rene Preval had confirmed cholera was the cause of the 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.
Reports of more cases were coming in from the Lower Artibonite and Central Plateau regions.
"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. But outbreaks could be potentially explosive among malnourished or displaced people living in unsanitary, crowded conditions, according to the WHO.
Amid fears the deadly disease could spread to the crowded quake survivors' camps in the wrecked capital, where some 1.5 million people are living under tents and tarpaulins, Larsen announced an emergency prevention program.
SPEED OF OUTBREAK'S SPREAD
"This disease is very dangerous. It can kill in three hours because once the diarrhea starts it doesn't stop." he said.
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.
Larsen 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," 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.
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.