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Haiti cholera epidemic could be worse than feared

In the weeks following the outbreak of cholera in Haiti last October, medical experts predicted the number of people who could be infected over the following 12 months might rise to between 300,000 to 400,000.

Now, medical researchers at the University of California warn this forecast could be a huge underestimate. In the three months between October and December in 2010, around 150,000 Haitians contracted cholera, resulting in around 3,500 deaths. Based on these numbers and an assessment of the current situation, the researchers say that nearly 800,000 Haitians could become infected by November this year, with deaths exceeding 11,000.

Cholera is spread from person to person after contact with human faeces, through unsanitary conditions or the contamination of food and water. Many agencies and organisations working in the country have been running awareness-raising campaigns of the ways to prevent infection, such as washing hands, drinking purified water and eating well-cooked food. However, continued lack of access to clean water and proper toilet facilities in some areas is hampering efforts to contain the disease. In one camp in the Carrefour district of Port au Prince, people are putting their toilet waste in plastic bags and throwing these onto rubbish piles which lie close to a cholera treatment centre.

A report by New York’s City University, based on work carried out by Haitian sociologists, also suggests the epidemic is unlikely to peak until the situation of poor sanitation is addressed. This new study accuses the international community and Haitian government of failing to capitalise on the movement of people outside Port au Prince immediately after the earthquake struck. If more aid effort had been focused on Haiti’s rural areas and rebuilding agriculture, the report’s authors believe that a a huge influx of people back into Port au Prince could have been avoided. The capital’s camps swelled to an estimated 1.7 million people at their peak. Ultimately, the report claims it is only through effective government action that crises like the cholera outbreak can be addressed.

The Haitian people are currently still waiting for a new government leader, with the presidential run-off vote scheduled on March 20th. As the two candidates await this poll, there has also been intense lobbying from some quarters for Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti, to be allowed to return home after an exile of seven years in South Africa. Aristide and his political party - Fanmi Lavalas – remain hugely popular in Haiti. Some international observers argue that if any government is to be effective in rebuilding the country, it will need to have a consensus-building and inclusive approach to rally Haiti’s people and engage their willingness to take part in the long task ahead.

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