Port-au-prince: Cholera reached the Haitian capital with 73 recorded cases and a first death raising fears the epidemic could spread through the city`s sprawling slums and spiral out of control.
"The epidemic of cholera, a highly contagious disease, is no longer a simple emergency, it`s now a matter of national security," the director of the Haiti`s health ministry, Gabriel Thimote, told a press conference.
Desperate scenes were described in the northern town of Gonaives where some 60 people were said to have died in the past few days, many of them villagers who couldn`t make it to hospital as taxis wouldn`t take them.
"Sick people died on the way to the hospital, the bodies were covered in blankets and left near the town cemetery," mayor Adolphe Jean-Francois told a news agency.
Deaths across the Caribbean nation soared close to 600 and Haitian authorities were warned to prepare for the worst if the acute diarrheal illness takes hold in tent cities crammed with earthquake survivors.
"Port-au-Prince is a large urban slum with very poor water and sanitation conditions. This is ripe for the rapid spread of cholera. We have to be prepared for it," said top UN health official Jon Andrus.
Claude Surena, president of the Haitian Doctors` Association, said that in addition to the one confirmed death in the capital, two more patients had died with cholera-like symptoms.
"These cases have not yet been confirmed by the laboratories," he said.
Haitian health ministry chief of staff Ariel Henry said there was no large-scale outbreak in Port-au-Prince at the moment but warned, "it`s coming."
The country`s first cholera epidemic in more than half-a-century surfaced in the Artibonite Valley in central Haiti on October 21, compounding the misery for a nation trying to recover from a devastating January earthquake.
The capital`s first cholera fatality was reported Tuesday in Saint Catherine`s Hospital, a clinic run by the aid group MSF-Belgique in the city`s largest slum Cite Soleil.
MSF (Doctors Without Borders) said it had treated more than 200 people in the capital with cholera-like symptoms over the past three days.
"There are suspected cases all around the country. According to our teams, bodies are being left in the streets in some villages," said MSF head of mission in Haiti Stefano Zannini.
Port-au-Prince has hundreds of makeshift camps where an estimated 1.3 million people displaced by January`s earthquake live in squalid and cramped conditions, sharing limited water supplies to cook and wash.
Authorities fear the bacterial disease, which is spread by contaminated drinking water or foods, could spread like wildfire through the camps and bring a second disaster to Haiti only months after the quake killed more than 250,000 people.
"As of yesterday, the Ministry of Health was reporting more than 9,100 hospitalized cases and some 583 deaths in some 240 communities," Andrus, the deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), told a press conference in Washington.
"These include 73 cases reported in Port-au-Prince. We expect these numbers to continue to rise as more cases are detected."
The PAHO, a regional office of the UN`s World Health Organization, gave a stark assessment of the situation going forward in Haiti based on the model of a massive Peruvian cholera outbreak in 1991.
"Extrapolating from Peru`s experience, one might expect upwards of 270,000 cases if Haiti`s epidemic continues for several years, as did Peru`s," Andrus said.
Hurricane Tomas, which claimed more than 20 lives in Haiti at the weekend, made matters worse as it dumped heavy rains that caused rivers, including the believed source of the cholera, the Artibonite, to flood.
"We have every reason to expect that the widespread flooding has increased the risk of cholera spreading. The effects of this could become apparent through an upsurge of cases over the coming days," said Andrus.
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.