Port-au-Prince: The UN appealed on Friday for funds to fight a cholera epidemic stalking Haiti as the death toll mounted to almost 800 with hundreds falling ill daily in one of the world`s poorest nations.
"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.
Amid warnings that the number of sick could soar, the UN appealed for USD 164 million to help battle the water-borne disease slowly taking hold in a nation already struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake.
Haitians still have not had time to rebuild since the January quake killed 250,000 people and left another 1.3 million homeless, now 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 have 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 like wildfire in the crowded, unsanitary conditions.
A strategy drawn up by the UN "anticipates up to 200,000 people to show symptoms of cholera ranging from cases of mild diarrhoea to the most severe dehydration" over the next six months, the OCHA and the World Health Organisation (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 centre 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 diarrhoea 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, said.
Hurricane Tomas, which claimed more than 20 lives in Haiti at the weekend, aggravated the situation as it brought heavy rains which caused rivers, including the Artibonite, to burst their banks and flood.