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Fighting to contain the cholera epidemic in Haiti

It is less than four weeks since cholera struck Haiti, the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Because the disease spreads so rapidly, nearly 15,000 Haitians have already been hospitalised according to the Health Ministry of Haiti. And the death toll is now over 900. The United Nations has appealed for 164 million dollars to be made available in order to treat and contain the epidemic. The money is needed for more doctors, medicines and water-purification supplies, as experts forecast between 200,000 to 300,000 Haitians could be infected over the next twelve months as the outbreak worsens.

The disease is now to be found in six (Artibonite, Centre, Nord, Nord Ouest, Ouest and Sud) of Haiti’s ten districts, though the central province of Artibonite, where the epidemic began, remains the worst affected. Nearly 600 people have died in this region. The original source of the cholera is believed to have come from the Artibonite River, which runs through central Haiti. At first, medics were hopeful that cases could be contained to the area. But conditions in Haiti are so poor, that perhaps the spread of the disease was inevitable.

Even before the earthquake struck in January, only 40 per cent of Haitians had access to safe drinking water. And with such widespread damage across the country, many Haitians, particularly those in rural areas, are forced to use unsafe water sources. The likelihood of becoming ill from drinking or washing food with contaminated water only increased after hurricane Tomas brought torrential rain.  The subsequent flooding caused the river to burst its banks, spreading the disease even more widely.

Aid agencies continue to distribute water purification tablets and medical supplies to affected areas. And if patients are treated quickly with antibiotics and rehydration fluids, they make a full recovery. But the fatality rate amongst cholera cases is currently 6.5 per cent, much higher than it should be. Haitians are therefore being urged to take sick relatives to hospital as soon as any symptoms of vomiting or diarrhoea present themselves. Any delay in seeking medical assistance can prove fatal.

Presidential and parliamentary elections are due to take place on the 28th November. Despite the threat from cholera and fears the disease could infect a serious number of people in the capital Port-Au-Prince, the government plans to go ahead with the scheduled elections. At least the government has received one piece of good news this week. The first tranche of US financial aid has finally been released after several delays and 120 million dollars is now available for the reconstruction efforts.

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