PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 13 – The United Nations has appealed for 164 million dollars in aid to fight Haiti\’s cholera epidemic as the death toll mounted to almost 800 with hundreds more falling ill daily.
The funds will go towards getting additional doctors, medicines and water purification equipment to respond to the epidemic in what is one of the world\’s poorest nations, UN officials said.
"We hope we can get this, otherwise all our efforts will be over-run by the epidemic," Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said in Geneva Friday.
The disease has spread quickly since it was first confirmed on October 22.
Haitians still have not had time to rebuild since the January quake that killed 250,000 people and left another 1.3 million homeless.
They are still sheltering in flimsy, dirty tent cities where access to fresh water and bathrooms is limited.
More than 12,300 people have now been sickened by the disease in just a few weeks, swamping tiny, overwhelmed and ill-prepared hospitals and clinics, according to the health ministry.
Out of the 796 deaths recorded so far, only 13 people succumbed to the disease in the teeming Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, including its largest slum Cite Soleil and its suburbs.
But there is a real fear that the disease, first detected in late October, will flare in the city\’s makeshift refugee camps where it could spread swifly through the crowded, unsanitary conditions.
A strategy drawn up by the United Nations "anticipates up to 200,000 people to show symptoms of cholera ranging from cases of mild diarrhea to the most severe dehydration" over the next six months, the OCHA and the World Health Organization (WHO) said.
"We urgently need medical staff, trained nurses… and to ramp up medical supplies," warned Byrs.
Doctors were taken by surprise by the outbreak as cholera has not been seen in Haiti for some five decades.
"No one alive in Haiti has experienced cholera before," said WHO spokesman Gregory Haertl.
The main center of the cholera outbreak is in the northern region of Artibonite, where the river of the same name is feared to be the source of the contagion.
There have been roughly 1,000 new cases every day this week and the death curve is getting steadily steeper.
"If cholera cases continue to rise at this rate, we\’ll quickly be overwhelmed," warned Yves Lambert, head of infectious diseases at the main public hospital in central Port-au-Prince.
Although easily treated, cholera has a short incubation period and causes acute diarrhea that can lead to severe dehydration and death in a matter of hours.
"We greatly fear a flare-up in the capital which would be serious given the conditions in the camps," Claude Surena, president of the Haitian Medical Association, told AFP.
The bulk of the requested money — around 89 million dollars — will be used for water, sanitation and hygiene, while 43 million will be used for health, and 19 million for efforts in the camps housing people displaced by the earthquake, UN officials said.
"A major effort has already been made, but the sheer quantity of relief items that need to be delivered in the days and weeks ahead is going to require more logistical and financial support for the government by all humanitarian agencies and donors and very close coordination,\’ said Nigel Fisher, UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Haiti.
"Without this the epidemic could well outrun our efforts," he added.
Hurricane Tomas, which claimed more than 20 lives in Haiti a week ago, aggravated the situation as it brought heavy rains which caused rivers, including the Artibonite, to burst their banks and flood.