Public Health

Public Health Expert Warns Cholera Outbreak Could Spread

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Officials Race To Contain Cholera Outbreak In Haiti

Haitian victims treated for cholera

Cholera victims in Haiti receive treatment at the St. Nicholas hospital in Saint Marc, Haiti. Dieu Nalio Chery/AP hide caption

toggle caption Dieu Nalio Chery/AP

UPDATE: 4:40 p.m.

The chief medical officer for Partners In Health, Dr. Joia Mukherjee, told reporters this afternoon she is concerned the cholera outbreak may continue to spread. As of this afternoon, her organization is reporting more than 2,000 cases of cholera and 160 deaths at Haitian health care facilities.

The Boston-based nonprofit, which has been working in Haiti for more than 20 years, has also learned that there is one or more contaminated water sources, including the Artibonite River with a catchment area of 1.5 million people. The 2010 earthquake, plus floods and mudslides, have left the water supply and the infrastructure in the region "in ruins."

Also of note, Dr. Mukherjee said this is the first cholera epidemic Haiti has had since the 1960s.

PIH started seeing cases of "profuse watery diarrhea" beginning on Tuesday in its clinics.  The death rate for these cases — 10 percent — was surprisingly high, and doctors soon began to suspect cholera.

UPDATE: 11:45 a.m

Dr. Michel Thieren of the Pan American Health Organization says Haiti's cholera outbreak is not associated with the earthquake in January, but he acknowledges that the chaos and living conditions left in its wake may cause the disease to spread more quickly.

"The area here in the capital city is still damaged and affected by this event and that certainly creates an increase risk in transmission of waterborne diseases," he says.

Thieren spoke with NPR's Jon Hamilton today by phone from Port-Au-Prince. He says the numbers of deaths and illnesses from the disease will be hard to pin down precisely for some time.

Meanwhile, NPR's Christopher Joyce reports that medical teams from the World Health Organization are headed to the region Artibonite, north of Port-au-Prince, where the outbreak is located.

Tune in for more on this story on tonight's All Things Considered.

One of the worst fears in the aftermath of January's massive earthquake in Haiti is being realized: A public health crisis in the form of a cholera outbreak.

CNN reports that Imogen Wall, the U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman in Haiti, says preliminary tests have confirmed that there are 138 deaths so far from cholera, and more than 1,526 reported cases of people with symptoms of severe diarrhea and vomiting in an area just north of Port-au-Prince.

"This is a situation that's developed very quickly. It's only been 48 hours and we've already got 138 deaths confirmed," Wall told CNN.

Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food, according to the World Health Organization. People who have it are at risk for dying of dehydration if their symptoms are not treated quickly.

Treatment includes doses of inexpensive oral rehydration salts, but the trick is getting them to those who need it.

Officials fear it could spread because tens of thousands of people are still living in unsanitary conditions in camps around the capital.

"We have been afraid of this since the earthquake," Robin Mahfood, president of Food for the Poor, told USA Today. The group was preparing to fly in donations of antibiotics, dehydration salts and other supplies.

Haiti hasn't had an outbreak of cholera for decades, although Africa has had several, including one earlier this month affecting Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria, WHO says.

Stay tuned for updates on this developing story.



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