Haiti's Cholera Epidemic Slows But Stays Deadly

The cholera epidemic in Haiti is losing steam, although the number of cases and fatalities continues to climb. The disease has killed more than 300 people and sent more than 4,000 people to hospitals and clinics. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Christopher Joyce in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, for the latest on the epidemic.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

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

The cholera epidemic in Haiti may be losing strength, although the number of cases and fatalities there continues to climb. Health authorities say that the latest figures show more than 300 people dead and 4,000 hospitalized. Almost all the cases are from northern parts of the island nation. So far, the capital city of Port-au-Prince, the most densely populated part of Haiti, has not seen any cases that started there.

NPR correspondent Christopher Joyce has been in Haiti this week, covering this epidemic, and joins us now. Chris, thanks for being with us.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: It's my pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: This is the second week since the government declared there's a true cholera outbreak. Help us understand what's going on there.

JOYCE: Well, I was up north, where the epidemic started - in St. Mark - a couple of days ago, and the mood actually is mixed. There's some relief because there are fewer cases than there were at the very beginning, when things were very intense and there were quite a few fatalities.

I visited a couple of towns, and the feeling is, you know, that the worst is over. It's not so concentrated, and that's good for them. That's not necessarily good for the rest of the country because people are moving out of there - people who may be carrying the bacterium, may be asymptomatic and not showing signs of the disease.

So the epidemic is becoming more diffuse.

SIMON: But let me ask you there about the capital, because Port-au-Prince is known to have this combination of terrible sanitation, unreliable supplies of fresh waters. You have, I guess, 1.3 million people now who are living in tent camps after the devastating earthquake earlier this year. This would seem to be almost the worst possible set of circumstances for an epidemic.

JOYCE: Well, that's what medical experts are particularly worried about, is these camps - as well as the slums. I mean, frankly, the camps have had the attentions of the non-governmental organizations from the West, for the most part, who have really concentrated on bringing tents and latrines, and things like that. The slums haven't had that attention. So sanitation is bad for a lot of the city, even beyond where the tent camps are.

And so there's a huge education campaign going on to prevent people from - at least to prepare people and hopefully, so that it won't come here - or if it does, it won't spread. There was a demonstration up in St. Mark - actually, the day before I got there. They were building a cholera clinic up there out of tents. And they said, no, we don't want it - because it's likely to bring cholera here, which is - well, not exactly medically correct.

But, you know, people are worried. They don't understand the disease. And to make things worse, it's a presidential campaign right now. Passions are very high, so a lot of education going on.

SIMON: Is there some - and I hesitate to use the word advantage - but must we note that this, at least, is occurring at a time when there are a lot of international agencies at work there and in a position to respond, at least a little?

JOYCE: Yes. You know, if this had happened at another time, it's doubtful that so many hands - experienced hands, public health hands, aid people with expertise in this sort of thing - would have been here. Because, you know, they all came here after January to help with the displaced population from the quake. And a lot of them have, you know, quickly moved from earthquake areas to the epidemic area to the north, and back to the camps.

I mean, you know, in an ironic way, all this attention to cholera is actually drawing a lot of attention back to the camps. After 10 months, there's a certain amount of, I guess, fatigue setting in about the people stuck in these camps with no possibility, no future of leaving them. And I suppose one silver lining here is that the camps are getting a lot more attention because they're afraid that they could become flash points for infection.

SIMON: NPR's Christopher Joyce in Haiti. Thanks so much.

JOYCE: It's my pleasure, Scott.

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