Medical teams rush to halt Haiti’s deadly cholera

2010-10-29 09:18

Port-au-Prince, Haiti – Medical teams are desperately trying to contain a cholera outbreak in Haiti that has killed more than 300 people, with thousands of patients flocking to hospitals in the affected central regions.

One week after cholera was confirmed in Haiti for the first time in decades, the death rate is slowing, but 305 people have lost their lives and close to 5 000 people have been infected. Officials warn that it could be years before it is eradicated.

Clinics were operating beyond capacity around the Artibonite River today, which is carrying the deadly cholera bacteria across the country to the Caribbean coast at Saint Marc, the outbreak’s epicentre about 100km north of Port-au-Prince.

Patients were stretched out on the floor of a radiology department in Saint-Marc, and a five-bed maternity centre, ill-equipped to treat the virulent diarrheal disease, housed 300 patients.

The source of the outbreak remains unclear, although the UN peacekeeping force Minustah is probing claims its septic tanks leaked into the Artibonite River and contaminated it with fecal bacteria.

At the Charles Colimon hospital in Petite Riviere, a small community along the Artibonite, up to 400 patients were packed in every available space.

Residents in this rural town rely heavily on the infected river for their daily chores. The low-lying land is water-logged and irrigation ditches from the river run right past homes where people wash and cook.

Men in yellow overalls with canisters of disinfectant strapped to their back sprayed the floor between the hospital beds.

Patients washed their hands with freshly cut lemons, believing this would help disinfect them. Aid agencies and the Haitian government are urging further steps to prevent the spread of the outbreak, with anti-bacterial lotion and tools to prepare food without infected water.

Although easily treated, cholera has a short incubation period – sometimes just a few hours – and causes acute watery diarrhoea that can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death.

Oral solutions and packets of rehydration salts were handed out at a local pharmacy to patients suffering from the earlier stages of the disease.

“If people are hydrated quick enough, they can be treated easily,” said Waking Jean-Baptiste, a doctor liaising between the international medical agency Doctors Without Borders and local staff at Charles Colimon.

“The problem is we only have one ambulance for the whole region so we hear reports that there are many sick people who cannot reach the hospital,” he said. “Without treatment, someone can die in as little as eight hours after infection.”

He said 25 deaths were reported in Petite Riviere in the first days of the outbreak earlier this month, but there had only been one since Doctors Without Borders arrived.

Earlier this week, the group’s field coordinator for Saint-Marc, Federica Nogarotto, voiced optimism that the epidemic was being controlled.

Fewer severe cases mean that “people are taking precautions and that there is a greater understanding in the community of the need to maintain strict hygiene and to seek medical assistance at the first sign of symptoms”, she said.

But the World Health Organisation (WHO) has warned that the outbreak was far from over and that Haiti should prepare for the disease to hit its capital and the teeming tent cities.

WHO cholera chief Claire-Lise Chaignat recommended Haitian authorities prepare for the “worst-case scenario” – cholera in the capital.

At least 1.3 million people displaced by the 7.0 magnitude earthquake on January 12 are still packed into thousands of squalid tent camps in Port-au-Prince, and aid agencies warn that cholera could spread like wildfire in such conditions.

Fear of the disease is turning to anger here, as Haitians begin to blame foreign aid workers and peacekeepers for the deadly outbreak.

The installation of a vital treatment centre in Saint-Marc had to be halted on Wednesday after hundreds of residents confronted doctors and aid workers, fuelled by fear the facility would spread cholera to two nearby schools.

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