HAITI: Nearly a week after being devastated by a hurricane, Haiti is confronted with a growing cholera outbreak threatening to turn its disaster even more deadly.
On the peninsula that forms the southern part of the country, which Hurricane Matthew shredded on Tuesday, the number of cholera cases detected is rising.
With it come fears of a new epidemic of a disease after an outbreak in 2010 blamed on United Nations peacekeepers that has already killed more than 10,000 people, with some 500 new cases reported each week.
On Sunday, the sole hospital in the smashed-up town of Port Salut recorded its first cholera death, that of a male patient who was among nine people brought in with the disease over just two days.
The body was covered with sheets in a room occupied by another cholera patient being kept alive through fluid injections.
The hospital’s director, Stevenson Desravines, confirmed the cause of death.
“It’s something that is starting,” he said, calling cholera’s spread “a fatal danger” to the local population.
He added that his facility was insufficiently staffed and supplied to tackle cholera and other health problems surging in the wake of the storm.
Afraid of cholera
Several other cholera deaths have started to be reported elsewhere in southern Haiti.
In the hospital in Les Cayes, the main city in the south, medics told AFP they had eight more cholera cases but no deaths so far.
On the outskirts of Port Salut, locals were seen bathing, washing clothes and fetching water to drink in streams clogged with storm debris.
“We have to drink this, we don’t have any clean water,” explained Celestein Sonyte, 19, sitting by a pool of river water before its cascaded down to a beach.
“I’m afraid of cholera but we’re forced to do this,” she said.
Sonyte added, however, that her family was adding chlorine tablets to their drinking water to kill bacteria.
Not all were able to take precautions, however, as people tried to survive in a cracked and broken landscape that is part of one of the poorest countries in the world.
The potential of a new cholera outbreak is especially alarming for Haiti, which has grappled with the disease since the aftermath of its catastrophic earthquake in 2010.
Relief workers in Haiti are aware of the danger posed by cholera following the hurricane, which fouled water sources.
But difficulties in getting to many towns and villages for the first few days seriously slowed the evaluation and response missions.
“Overflowing rivers, stagnant waters, and animal and human corpses are perfect breeding grounds for waterborne diseases,” said Marc Vincent, the representative in Haiti for the UN children’s fund UNICEF.
“Every day that goes by increases the threat of cholera,” he said, adding that children under five were especially at risk from the disease.
The Port Salut hospital was one of the few buildings to escape the storm virtually intact, thanks to its solid construction. It stands on a street of destroyed and damaged houses and fallen trees.
Inside and outside the hospital, used soda bottles filled with diluted chlorine hung from handrails, encouraging staff, patients and visitors to regularly disinfect their hands to avoid catching the disease. They had been put out a day earlier.
A sign pointed those with suspected cholera to use a separate entrance.
The facility has a staff of 55 – a third of them Cubans who are operating in the facility under a years-old cooperation agreement.
One of the Cuban personnel, who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorised to speak to the media, said that direct storm-related injuries, such as broken bones, were the initial priority.
He observed that, so far, there were relatively “very few” cholera cases being brought in.
But UNICEF noted that proper sanitation and access to clean drinking was already poor before the storm, and now had become much worse.
Desravines said that so far he had received no help from the UN or other aid organisations in the country.
“We are waiting for more personnel, more supplies, including intravenous bags, medicines and cleaning products,” he said.