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Cholera spreads quickly in Haiti

Over 200,000 cases of cholera have been registered across Haiti in the first three months since the first case, a number which had been predicted for six months time. This means the epidemic is spreading twice as fast as had been estimated and the United Nations (UN) now fears Haiti will be dealing with hundreds of thousands of infections over the coming months. Already, over 1,400 people have died and aid agencies are preparing to “ratchet up” their response to the crisis.

Nigel Fisher, the UN’s humanitarian co-ordinator for Haiti, has told the Haitian government that more pressure must be put on local authorities to find places where bodies can be disposed of safely and areas found where new treatment centres can be set up. With no previous experience of cholera, communities are fearful of medical centres being erected nearby, believing they present a greater danger of infection. The UN under-secretary for humanitarian affairs, Valerie Amos, is visiting Haiti and has spoken of the need to give a clear message to the people that with hand-washing and proper sanitation, “this is something that can be dealt with”.

Public health statements now intermingle with political messages across Haiti, as election campaigning for the new president and legislative members is in full swing. Four of the 19 presidential candidates and some human rights groups wanted Sunday’s elections to be postponed because of the cholera outbreak. However, most Haitians believe the elections should take place as planned because of the urgent need for a new government. Though there have been some violent protests and there are likely to be security challenges on the day around polling stations, the UN mission believes that generally conditions are set for a fair and successful vote.

As well as choosing a president, the people of Haiti will be voting for 99 deputies and 10 senators. A new and stable government is urgently required to help steer the recovery and reconstruction efforts after January’s devastating earthquake. Aid organisations dealing with the cholera epidemic are already lobbying that one of the first priorities of any government must be investment in the water system. According to UN figures, only two-thirds of Haitians had access to safe drinking water before the earthquake. Now, more than ever, clean water and proper sanitation are desperately needed, if the cholera epidemic is to be contained in the longer term. As one agency put it, efforts to improve the water situation in the country must “be led by the Haitian government”.

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