Cholera Spreads On Eve Of Haiti Elections

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The cholera death toll continues to rise in Haiti. According to official figures from the government, at least 1,648 people have died and there have been more than 72,000 confirmed cholera cases.

SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

In Haiti, the cholera death toll continues to rise. According to official government figures, over 1,600 people have died and there have been more than 72,000 confirmed cholera cases. International aid agencies are trying to set up isolated cholera treatment clinics across the country, but officials say they're stretched to the limit. NPR's Jason Beaubien reports from the Haitian capital.

(Soundbite of traffic noises)

JASON BEAUBIEN: In Haiti, even the dead have to wait, and in Port-au-Prince they wait for Rochfort St. Louis. St. Louis heads a team from the ministry of health that in response to the cholera epidemic collects bodies that have been dumped in the street. St. Louis and his team have just arrived at the bus stand Portail Leogane, near downtown Port-au-Prince.

A thin body is lying under a sheet. St. Louis pulls on a long yellow raincoat, a surgical mask, gloves and thick rubber boots. He starts to spray the body with chlorinated water. Quickly, a crowd forms. People are murmuring cholera, cholera, both as an accusation and a question.

Mr. BERTEAU VERLUS (Street Market Vendor): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Berteau Verlus, a vendor in the adjacent street market, says the dead man and a female companion arrived on a bus from the countryside the day before. Verlus said the man was dead when they reached the capital. The driver put his body here and the woman disappeared. St. Louis and his crew lift the dead man into a body bag and load him into the back of their vehicle.

St. Louis's vehicle happens to be a colorful tap-tap, the ubiquitous covered pickup trucks that serve as low-cost buses in Port-au-Prince. St. Louis says right now cholera is causing a lot of fear here.

Dr. ROCHFORT ST. LOUIS (Haiti Ministry of Health): (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: They know that it's a bacteria and that it's still alive even though someone died, he says. And even though they care about this person, they don't want the body in a cemetery or in a church for a funeral. This is why they abandon the bodies in the street.

One day last week, he picked up 30 corpses. Yesterday morning he collected five, which he says might be a sign that the deaths or the fears are going down.

St. Louis drives to a mass grave north of the capital. It's the same place where thousands of bodies were dumped after the January 12 earthquake. The tap-tap pulls up to a deep trench and the workers unceremoniously toss the white body bags in.

(Soundbite of bags hitting pile)

Unidentified Man #1: Au revoir.

BEAUBIEN: One of the workers bids the corpses a quick goodbye in French and the death toll from this epidemic ticks higher.

There are widespread efforts to control the disease - radio ads and trucks with loudspeakers urge people to wash their hands regularly.

Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Red Cross workers hand out iodine tablets so residents can purify their drinking water.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: In an informal camp packed with tarp-covered shacks, a worker for UNICEF leads about 30 kids through a quiz on cholera. The prize is a bar of soap.

(Soundbite of children speaking in foreign language)

BEAUBIEN: Tomorrow, Haiti holds presidential elections, and some of the candidates have called for the balloting to be postponed because of the outbreak. Those calls, however, were rejected.

In just over a month, cholera has spread throughout the entire country. Nigel Fisher, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Haiti, says the outbreak has diverted efforts from the earthquake recovery in Port-au-Prince.

Mr. NIGEL FISHER (U.N. Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti): This is the most critical crisis facing Haiti right now, and a lot of us have had to therefore switch resources to countering the cholera.

BEAUBIEN: Cholera can kill a person within a matter of hours, so health clinics have to be staffed 24 hours a day.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Foreign language spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Dr. Wesler Lambert with Partners in Health recently helped set up a cholera treatment facility at a camp in the capital. Children on IV drips lie on green Army-style cots. The facility's in one corner of an informal settlement that holds 50,000 earthquake survivors. The cholera treatment unit is a simple wood frame structure. The walls and floors are made out of plastic tarps. Dr. Lambert says the number of patients keeps going up every day.

Dr. WESLER LAMBERT (Partners in Health): It's (unintelligible). It's like from, like the first week we start, like, two weeks ago, from, like, 10 kids today to 20, 30, and then now to 50 a day, 50 new cases.

BEAUBIEN: Just in this facility?

Dr. LAMBERT: Just in this facility.

BEAUBIEN: The demand for cholera treatment is growing so rapidly that despite having opened only three weeks ago, they're expanding into two more tents out back. The two extra tents will allow them to treat an additional 45 people at a time. And Dr. Lambert says unfortunately they expect that in the weeks ahead those extra beds will be full.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News, Port-au-Prince.

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