Haiti cholera death rate slows

Officials say outbreak is stabilising, as aid agencies warn spread of disease to Port-au-Prince could lead to catastrophe

A multinational medical relief effort appears to have slowed the death rate in Haiti's cholera outbreak, which has killed more than 250 people in just over a week and infected 3,000 others.

Aid organisations have set up emergency isolation care units in the Artibonite region to deal with the worst affected cases. Health experts warned the epidemic might still spread.

World Health Organisation officials said 12 cholera treatment centres were being built to support isolation and treatment.

Federica Nogarotto, of Médecins Sans Frontières, one of the aid agencies expanding their facilities to deal with the outbreak, said: "There are significant numbers of patients in St Nicholas hospital in St Marc [the centre of the outbreak], which does not have the capacity to handle a cholera emergency.

"The most important thing is to isolate the cholera patients there from the rest of the patients … to prevent further spread of the disease."

Gabriel Thimote, director general of Haiti's health department, said: "We have registered a diminishing number of deaths. The tendency is that it is stabilising, without being able to say that we have reached a peak."

Cholera is an acute intestinal infection caused by bacteria carried in human feces and can be transmitted by water. Its symptoms are watery diarrhoea and vomiting, which can lead to rapid death if not treated promptly.

There had long been fears of an outbreak in the aftermath of the earthquake in January that devastated the capital, Port-au-Prince, and the surrounding countryside. The disaster made 1.3 million people homeless, many of whom are still living in makeshift shelters.

The source of the infection is believed to be the Artibonite river. Fears that the epidemic could spread to Port-au-Prince were raised at the weekend after several infections were reported there. However, it emerged that those people had become ill in Artibonite and travelled to the capital for treatment.

Health experts say a spread of the infection to Port-au-Prince could lead to catastrophe because the city has crowded slums, camps and unsanitary conditions.

"You've got people living cheek by jowl in conditions not as hygienic as anyone would want at best of times," said Melanie Brooks, a spokeswoman for Care International. "People are extremely susceptible to disease and if this spreads to Port-au-Prince there is a large fear this can spread quickly."

Oxfam's health adviser Raphael Mutiku said he was optimistic that the spread of the disease could be checked.

"We are obviously concerned about the spread of cholera to Port-au-Prince. However, earthquake victims living in and around the capital have better access to clean water, latrines and better knowledge of good hygiene practices than in rural areas," he said.

"We are working as quickly as possible to stop the spread of cholera. The goal is to stop the spread in the region of Petite Rivière by Wednesday."


Peter Beaumont

The GuardianTramp

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