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The cholera epidemic in Haiti has stabilized for the moment, but health workers there are saying that with extreme caution. Cholera struck Haiti's northwest and some people may be silently carrying the bacteria elsewhere. NPR's Christopher Joyce reports from Port-au-Prince.
CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Cholera shouldn't be a serious killer.�It's easily treated -if you catch it in time.�But cholera is also stealthy. People can be infected and not know it for up to two weeks.�During that time, they can spread it to others through fecal matter that gets into water that's used for cooking, drinking or washing.�
This week, epidemiologists working with the International Organization for Migration have begun to track people from the Artibonite region where the epidemic first struck.�
An organization spokesman explained that they've used cell phone records to track people leaving the area, people who could be infected. There are lots of them.�The epidemiologists don't know their identities, but they're sending those people text messages to call a free number. If they do, they'll learn about how to avoid spreading the disease and what to do if they get infected.
That's crucial if authorities are to keep this epidemic bottled up. So far the death toll has steadied at 273, with a total of 3,612 cases, according to the U.N.�Only five confirmed cases have turned up in Port-au-Prince.
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But the city of Port-au-Prince is the powder keg in this epidemic.�There are two groups that are especially vulnerable. One group lives in camps created after the January earthquake, who were left homeless.�There are 1.3 million of them.�And the other group are those who live in the permanent slums.�
Aid experts say the camps actually are less threatened with cholera than the slums. Most camps have clean water and latrines.�The slums do not.
Aid groups are here, in force, to hold off the epidemic. Sabrina Pourmand-Nolan is local director for World Vision, which has been working in Haiti for three decades. She says the quake brought help that might not otherwise have been here.�
Ms. SABRINA POURMAND-NOLAN (Director, World Vision): On some level, it's very fortunate that the international community is here at this time, because the coordination that we're able to provide in such a rapid fashion would not have been here, that capacity would not have been here before the earthquake.�
JOYCE: World Vision is working in dozens of camps to provide simple things like soap and buckets - and-washing stations they call them.�Other groups are taking dance and musical groups into slums and camps with shows that educate people about keeping water and sewage apart.
Doctors without Borders and U.N. related organizations are also building cholera clinics to keep new cases from spreading the disease to vulnerable patients in regular hospitals.�Teams are also scouring this relatively unmapped city, to find out where schools and clinics are if cholera starts to flourish here.�They're using GPS equipment to make maps of them.�
Ultimately, cholera could be here for a long time. It was absent from Haiti since the 1960s, even as it struck Central and South America. And now that it's here, says Sabrina Pourmand-Nolan, it will take a huge effort to keep a lid on it.�
What do you have to do to keep it from becoming a constant or permanent plague?�
Ms. POURMAND-NOLAN: It's not just about getting proper sewage, it's about getting proper educational facilities proper health facilities. That's how we're going to protect the people for the long term.
JOYCE: Which has been the prescription for Haiti since well before cholera struck.
Christopher Joyce, NPR News, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.