Port-au-Prince: Haiti cholera deaths rose above 250 but the number of new infections and fatalities began to taper off, offering hope the epidemic might have been contained.
The new toll of 253 dead and 3,115 infections, provided by the director general of Haiti`s health department Gabriel Thimote, represented an increase of only 33 fatalities over a 24-hour period.
The disease "is limited to a well-defined perimeter" in the northern region of Artibonite and part of the central plateau, Foreign Minister Marie-Michele Rey told reporters.
Speaking in Switzerland where she was attending a summit of French-speaking nations, Rey said that for the time being "those who are on the spot appear to be able to contain the situation”.
But fears linger of a major health crisis should the outbreak infiltrate Port-au-Prince`s squalid tent cities, where hundreds of thousands live in awful conditions after being displaced by January`s earthquake.
Cholera is primarily passed on through contaminated water or food and could spread like wildfire through the unsanitary tent cities, where displaced families bathe outside, do laundry and share meals in close quarters.
Only five people in the capital have been diagnosed with cholera so far and the UN`s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said they had all travelled in from the epicentre of the outbreak in the Artibonite river area.
"These cases thus do not represent a spread of the epidemic because this is not a new location of infection," the UN body said, adding that the development was, however, "worrying”.
Contamination of the Artibonite River, an artery crossing Haiti`s rural centre that thousands of people use for much of their daily activities, is believed to be the source of the epidemic.
Regional health director Dieula Louissaint stressed the need to isolate patients to contain the spread of the disease, which, with its characteristic severe vomiting and diarrhoea, can dehydrate and kill in a matter of hours.
"We cannot continue to treat cholera in this structure where we are also seeing other kinds of patients," Louissaint said. "We need to establish specific treatment centres."
Around 3,000 people have been admitted to hospitals and health centres near Saint-Marc, a main town several hours northwest of the capital.
More than 50 inmates at a prison in the centre of the country have also been infected and three have died, officials said.
"The situation is under control. The population should not give in to panic, but people must take hygienic measures seriously," advised Jocelyne Pierre-Louis, a physician with the Health Ministry.
President Rene Preval and Health Minister Alex Larsen toured regions affected by the epidemic on Saturday, as authorities vowed they were working to provide clean water to residents.
On Friday, the Health Ministry asked the United Nations operations in Haiti to take charge of distributing medication sent by international donors.
Doctors Without Borders was setting up a field hospital in Saint Marc to treat patients and Oxfam sent five emergency specialists to Artibonite to set up water, sanitation and hygiene facilities for up to 100,000 people.
The Canadian government has offered to set up a military hospital on the ground and the United States has pledged to set up large tents to treat patients.
Canada, which has its own sizable Haitian population, also offered to send one million Canadian dollars to help fight the spread of the outbreak.
The aid agency Oxfam said it will distribute soap, water tablets and rehydration salt packs to 25,000 Haitians as part of the effort to rein in the cholera outbreak.
World Vision meanwhile also sent teams fanning out to distribute emergency health supplies and address cholera preventative measures.
The US branch of the Red Cross said on Saturday that three large shipments of supplies had arrived on Haiti, already considered the poorest country in the western hemisphere even before January`s 7.0-magnitude quake.