, Haiti, Oct 22 – A cholera epidemic in northern Haiti has claimed 135 lives and infected 1,500 people, an official said Thursday amid concerns of a wider outbreak in the impoverished nation.
The epidemic has grown in the past few days but has not yet reached the major displaced persons camps in and around the capital Port-au-Prince, which was ravaged by a 7.0 earthquake in January that left 1.2 million people homeless.
But officials fear an outbreak in densely populated tent cities that have poor sanitation and meager medical facilities has the potential of unleashing a public health disaster.
"According to the results of the analysis carried out in the laboratory it is cholera," Claude Surena, president of the Haitian Medical Association confirmed to AFP of the outbreak in Saint Marc, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital.
Health officials contacted by AFP said most of the deaths were along the Artibonite river that crosses the center and north of the country.
Doctors earlier said 26 deaths had been registered and more than 400 people hospitalized, but the figures continued to rise throughout the day.
Across the most affected region of Artibonite, some 80 deaths have been counted so far, medical sources said.
"Hospitals and medical centers in the region are overwhelmed and numerous deaths have been registered," said Gabriel Timothe, director general of the Haitian health ministry.
"There are several hundred people in hospital, and we are evacuating a number of the sick patients to other centers," he added.
In Saint Marc\’s Saint Nicolas hospital, confusion and fear gripped patients and their relatives as many of the sick brought to the small facility were left on the floor because all the beds were taken.
Edner Philemon, 22, told AFP at the Saint Nicolas hospital he was feeling very weak due to losing so much weight in two days, saying he was also "mourning the loss of three family members from diarrhea in a matter of hours."
"We\’re facing an outbreak of diarrhea… which causes rapid death of patients of all ages. This has to do with the quality of water in the affected communities," said doctor Jean-Robert Pierre-Louis.
Haiti is still struggling to rebuild after the devastating quake that killed some 250,000 people and left hundreds of thousands of people crammed into the makeshift tent cities throughout the ruined capital.
Many survivors had fled the city to live with relatives in other towns across the Caribbean nation of about nine million people, the poorest country in the Americas.
Aid agencies have voiced fears for months that any outbreak of disease could spread rapidly due to the unsanitary conditions in the camps where people have little access to clean water.
International agencies have swung into action, mobilizing medical personnel to try to contain the spread of the disease and treat the sick.
"We are evaluating the situation on the ground with the international partners and the Haitian health authorities," said Fanny Devoucoux from the French aid organization Acted.
Cholera is caused by a comma-shaped bacterium called Vibrio cholerae, transmitted through water or food that has typically been contaminated by human fecal matter.
It causes serious diarrhea and vomiting, leading to dehydration. It is easily treatable by rehydration and antibiotics. But with a short incubation period, it can be fatal if not treated in time.
The World Health Organization says on its website that "cholera is an extremely virulent disease. It affects both children and adults and can kill within hours.
"The short incubation period of two hours to five days, enhances the potentially explosive pattern of outbreaks," it added.
The impoverished Caribbean nation has also been hit in recent days by severe flooding adding to the misery of those struggling to survive in the scores of tent cities now dotting the country.
Pandemic cholera last stalked the world in the 1960s, although the disease still erupts among refugees or in war zones where sanitation and medical infrastructure have broken down.
An outbreak that began in Peru in 1991 and moved through South America caused more than 1.1 million cases until 1994, including more than 10,500 deaths, according to WHO figures.
There are an estimated three to five million cholera cases every year, with about 100,000 to 120,000 deaths.