Cholera: Inevitable Spread to Port-au-Prince

Though cases less severe, health care workers brace for cholera spread.

ByABC News
October 25, 2010, 4:45 PM

October 25, 2010— -- The radio announcements and signs appear to have done little. They urge people in Haiti to stay away from potentially contaminated water. But in rural areas north of Port-au-Prince, they still bathe in -- and drink from -- rivers suspected to be the source of the country's deadly cholera outbreak. It has already sickened more than 3,300 people and killed 259.

En route to St.-Marc, a town about 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince, ABC News chief health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser stopped in Montrouis, where he was approached by a man who feared the spread of cholera.

Guy Fils-Aime, a Haitian native of Montrouis, told Besser the people there are used to drinking from the river, but now fear they might contract the disease. Two people from his town have died from cholera, Fils-Aime told Besser.

Still, Fils-Aime said the locals in Montrouis have no choice but to use the potentially contaminated water. No chlorine tablets have been delivered to the town, and many cannot afford to buy bottled water.

"There is nothing from anybody," he said.

Further north, St.-Marc, on the Artibonite River, is the epicenter of the cholera outbreak. Nearly 600 patients at St. Nicholas hospital in St.-Marc are triaged each day and 400 of those are hospitalized, according to Partners in Health, a nonprofit health group that operates the hospital in partnership with the Haitian Ministry of Health.

Cholera deaths in Haiti have slowed and many hospitals report no spike or decline in the number of cases each day. However, many government organizations anticipate the disease will spread to urban relief camps, including in the capital of Port-au-Prince.

"Entry of the disease into the camps will be devastating," said Dr. Louise Ivers, Partners in Health chief of mission in Haiti.

Haiti's Ministry of Health reported Monday 259 deaths from cholera and 3,342 cases of the disease. Five of the cases were confirmed in Port-au-Prince.

"I'd say everybody is [at risk in Port-au-Prince]," Mark Henderson, the water and sanitation chief for UNICEF, told ABC News. "All it takes is a sick person coming down from the outbreak area."

Many health officials also warn that the Dominican Republic, the only country which borders Haiti, may also be at risk.

"People are going back and forth [over the border]," said Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan-American Health Organization. Andrus said regardless of which infectious disease public health experts are trying to manage, experts should take "an island-wide approach."

"We have to think that the infection is going to hit the other side of the island," he said.