Health disaster underway in Haiti

By Iram Zahra

BEIJING—(October 25, 2010—M4relay) — An outbreak of severe diarrhea has killed at least 135 people in rural central Haiti and sickened more than 1000 others who seek treatment at crowded hospitals. Health workers suspect the disease is cholera but are still awaiting tests results.

Haitian health officials also fear an outbreak in densely populated tent cities that have poor sanitation and meager medical facilities. The epidemic has grown in the past few days but has not yet reached the major displaced persons camps in and around the capital Port-au-Prince, which was ravaged by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake in January. The outbreak according to health workers however has the potentials of unleashing a public health disaster. The outbreak comes months after a devastating earthquake left 1.2 million people homeless and affecting an estimated three million people. The Haitian Government had reported that about 230,000 people died, 300,000 injured and 1,000,000 made homeless. Haitian officials also estimated that 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings had collapsed or were severely damaged.

Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholera. It has a short incubation period, from less than one day to five days, and produces an enterotoxin that causes copious, painless, watery diarrhea that can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death if treatment is not promptly given. Vomiting also occurs in most patients.

Speaking of the situation in Haiti, Catherine Huck, deputy country director for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs “what we know is that people have diarrhea, and they are vomiting, and (they) can go quickly if they are not seen in time.” Huck said doctors were still awaiting lab results to pinpoint the disease.

The sick come from across the rural Artibonite region, which did not experience significant damage in the January 12 quake but has absorbed thousands of refugees from the devastated capital 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of St. Marc.

Some patients said they drank water from a public canal, while others said they bought purified water. All complained of symptoms including fever, vomiting and severe diarrhea.

“We have been afraid of this since the earthquake,” said Robin Mahfood, president of Food for the Poor, which was preparing to airlift donations of antibiotics, oral dehydration salts and other supplies.

There are concerns that this disease could spread from one place to another and affect more people. Haiti people are in need of huge humanitarian assistance if the peoples’ health must be stabilized. The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince has urged people to drink only bottled or boiled water and eat only food that has been thoroughly cooked.

The outbreak in Haiti precedes a current wave of cholera outbreaks which affecting Central Africa few months ago. As of October 3, 40,468 cases and 1,879 deaths have been reported in four countries – Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria. WHO is working to strengthen surveillance activities. Supplies for case management and chlorination of water have also been dispatched to some of the affected areas. The Ministries of Health of the four affected countries are planning to organize a cross border meeting in Abuja in order to reinforce the surveillance and revise the preparedness and response plans to cholera epidemics in the localities around Lake Chad.

* Iram Zahra is an international reporter at M4 Media

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