PORT-AU-PRINCE– Haiti’s cholera epidemic appears to be stabilizing, but UN health officials warned Tuesday it wasn’t over as fears remain it could infiltrate refugee camps crammed with earthquake survivors.
“At the WHO we think more cases will be found. The most important thing is prevention,” World Health Organization spokeswoman Fadela Chaib told reporters in Geneva.
Haiti’s first cholera epidemic in more than 100 years emerged last week and has so far killed 259 people and infected more than 3,000 others, although the fatality rate has slowed dramatically in recent days.
So far the poorest country in the western hemisphere has managed to avoid the nightmare scenario of the epidemic taking hold in the putrid tent cities that cling to the hilly slopes of Port-au-Prince.
Large parts of the capital and other nearby towns were flattened by January’s 7.0-magnitude quake which killed a quarter of a million people and left an estimated 1.3 million displaced.
Haiti’s more prosperous neighbor, the Dominican Republic — with which it shares the Caribbean island of Hispaniola — is tightening up its border security to prevent the spread of cholera.
Entry into the country from Haiti would be severely restricted, a popular open air market on the shared border has been shut, and the import of food products from Haiti has been banned, local media reports said.
“We will maintain strict supervision of our ports, airports and border crossings points to prevent the transmission of this disease to our country,” public health minister Bautista Rojas was quoted as saying.
In Geneva, the WHO’s Chaib urged the Dominican Republic to keep the border open but said there was no harm in making contingency plans.
“There is no need to close the borders or restrict travel or trade because a neighboring country has cholera. This is what we say for all cholera outbreaks worldwide.”
Aid agencies, meanwhile, stepped up efforts to educate Haitians about the risks and treatment of cholera, using local radio stations and text-messages about hygiene precautions to get the message across.
Haitian officials said Monday they believed the outbreak had been contained to central areas and noted that only six new deaths had been reported in the last 24-hour period.
But a UN statement quickly tempered any optimism by warning that a nationwide outbreak, with tens of thousands of people infected, was still a distinct possibility.
“We are particularly concerned about Port-au-Prince and those in the slum areas as well as in the camps, but we are also preparing for outbreaks in the rest of the country,” said Nigel Fisher, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti.
Living conditions in the camps, where pools of human waste lie in areas where people bathe, do laundry and share meals, are ideal for cholera to thrive.
The disease, which is primarily transmitted through contaminated food and water, can fatally dehydrate a victim in a matter of hours.
Amid the makeshift homes in the overflowing Champs de Mars camp, across the street from Haiti’s crushed national palace, the dread of cholera is palpable.
“We know what to do to protect ourselves, but children are left to their own devices,” said 24-year-old Elvia. “They don’t wash themselves correctly and, look, the toilets are right in front of the tents where we live.”
Five cholera cases were confirmed at the weekend in the capital but UN officials said those people traveled in from outside and were quickly diagnosed and isolated.
Most of those infected have been admitted to hospitals and clinics around Saint-Marc, a major town northwest of the capital.
Contamination of the Artibonite River, an artery crossing Haiti’s rural center used by thousands, is believed to be the source of the epidemic.
“Evaluations show that most of the cases of cholera come from people in rural areas who worked in rice fields… especially Artibonite where the cases affect lots of seasonal workers,” OCHA spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs explained.
Five cholera treatment centers are being set up in the Artibonite region and six more were being set up as a precaution in the capital, the UN said.
Doctors Without Borders has installed a field hospital in Saint-Marc to treat patients and aid groups have sent emergency specialists to Artibonite to set up water, sanitation and hygiene facilities.
The story was first published on AFP.

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