Doctors and aid workers scrambled Friday to rein in a cholera outbreak in central Haiti that has killed 140 people, while warning that the crisis probably will get worse in a country where tent camps are still teeming with people displaced by the January earthquake.
“There’s no reason to anticipate that this wouldn’t spread widely,” said Joia Mukherjee, chief medical officer for Partners in Health, a Boston-based relief organization that runs three hospitals in the area.
The acute bacterial illness, spread primarily through contaminated drinking water, has struck more than 2,000 people throughout the farming valley along the Artibonite River, with the highest number in the port city of St. Marc.
Officials feared the disease could reach the capital, Port-au-Prince, 55 miles to the south, where hundreds of thousands of people are living in fetid conditions in the camps. International Medical Corps, based in Santa Monica, Calif., said Friday it had confirmed multiple cases of cholera in Croix-des-Bouquets, a suburb of Port-au-Prince.
This is the first outbreak of cholera in Haiti in more than a century. It is unclear whether the massive displacement of people to the Artibonite Valley after the earthquake may have created the unsanitary conditions that allow such a disease to spread. But Haiti’s public water system has long been one of the worst in the world, and health officials have perennially warned of an epidemic.
The World Health Organization says less than half the country uses “improved drinking water sources,” and a 2008 Partners in Health report found that 70 percent of Haitians lacked continuous direct access to clean water.
Cholera causes such severe diarrhea and vomiting that people can die of dehydration in little more than a few hours. It spreads rapidly when infected fecal matter enters the water supply.