Latin America & Caribbean

Haiti cholera deaths 'near 300'

A girl receives treatment for cholera in St Marc, Haiti (26 Oct 2010)
Image caption Cholera causes severe dehydration and can kill within hours if untreated

Health officials in Haiti say nearly 300 people are now known to have died in a cholera outbreak in the country.

Five-hundred new cases were reported on Wednesday, bringing the number of patients being treated for the infection to more than 4,000.

Officials from the World Health Organisation warned that the epidemic had not yet reached its peak.

They also told the country to prepare for the disease to spread to the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Health experts say they expect the outbreak will soon lessen but the disease will eventually join malaria and tuberculosis in becoming endemic in Haiti.

"It's normal that we should expect a settlement of cholera in Haiti nationwide over the coming months," Dr Michel Thieren of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) told Reuters news agency.

Federica Nogarotto, of charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), said the slowdown in cases was positive.

"It suggests that people are taking precautions and that there is a greater understanding in the community of the need to maintain strict hygiene and to seek medical assistance at the first sign of symptoms," she told AFP.

The spread of the disease has alarmed locals in the region, who have reportedly vented their fears on the doctors who have arrived to help them.

The Associated Press reported that a treatment centre set up by the Spanish branch of MSF in Saint-Marc had been attacked by angry locals, who said they were afraid that the facility would bring more cases of the disease to their town.

UN peacekeepers were drafted in to sort out the disturbance, and no injuries were reported, AP said.

Dominican Republic fears

The public information campaign urges people to boil food and water, avoid raw vegetables and regularly wash with soap.

The health ministry has said it will train 30,000 staff over the next few months to join the anti-cholera campaign.

Special treatment centres have been set up in the worst affected area around the Artibonite River, as well as in Port-au-Prince.

A handful of cases have been reported in the capital but they were all in people who had contracted the disease in other parts of the country.

Some 1.3 million survivors of January's devastating earthquake are living in tent camps in and around the capital.

Poor sanitary conditions make the camps and slums vulnerable to cholera, which is caused by bacteria transmitted through contaminated water or food.

"We know what to do to protect ourselves," Elvia, a 24-year-old resident of the Champs de Mars camp in the capital, told AFP.

"But children are left to their own devices. They don't wash themselves correctly and, look, the toilets are right in front of the tents where we live."

Cholera causes diarrhoea and vomiting leading to severe dehydration, and can kill within 24 hours, but is easily treated through rehydration and antibiotics.

The PAHO said there was a "high risk" cholera could also spread to the neighbouring Dominican Republic.

Authorities there had closed popular farmers' markets on the border but have now reopened them after establishing sanitary controls in the region, the Dominican Republic's health minister said.

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