Haiti's cholera death toll rose above 300, as medical teams sought to contain an outbreak overwhelming the quake-hit nation's crumbling hospitals with desperate patients.
- A nurse adjusts an IV drip in a ward full of patients suffering from cholera
- A boy suffering from dehydration and diarrhea waits to be treated at the Charles Colimon hospital in Petite Riviere
- A woman waits for her son suffering from cholera to be treated
- Haiti cholera epidemic yet to peak: WHO
One week after cholera was confirmed in Haiti for the first time in decades, the death rate is slowing, but 305 people have lost their lives so far and nearly 5,000 others have been infected. Officials warn it could be years before it is eradicated.
AdvertisementClinics were beyond capacity, with patients lying on the floor of a radiology department in Saint-Marc, the outbreak's epicenter some 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of the capital Port-au-Prince.
A five-bed maternity center, ill-equipped to treat the virulent diarrheal disease, housed 300 patients.
The source of the outbreak remains unclear, although the UN peacekeeping force MINUSTAH is probing claims its septic tanks leaked into the Artibonite river and contaminated it with fecal bacteria.
At the Charles Colimon hospital in Petite Riviere, a small community along the Artibonite, up to 400 patients were packed in every available space -- in the corridors, on floors and in tents surrounding the facility.
Residents in this rural town rely heavily on the infected river for their daily chores. The low-lying land is water-logged and irrigation ditches from the river run right past homes where people wash and cook.
The rusted iron and plastic roofing of the hospital, the main medical center for a large swath of the infected area, failed to stop a midday downpour, prompting doctors to rush patients away from leaks.
Men in yellow overalls with canisters of disinfectant strapped to their back sprayed the floor between the beds -- crude wood slabs on short posts with holes cut in the middle and buckets of waste underneath.
Sickened patients washed their hands with freshly cut lemons, believing this would help disinfect them. Aid agencies and the Haitian government are urging further steps to prevent the outbreak's spread, with anti-bacterial lotion and tools to prepare food without infected water.
Although easily treated, cholera has a short incubation period -- sometimes just a few hours -- and causes acute watery diarrhea that can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death.
Oral solutions and packets of rehydration salts were handed out at a local pharmacy to patients suffering from the earlier stages of the disease.
"If people are hydrated quick enough, they can be treated easily," said Waking Jean-Baptiste, a doctor liaising between the international medical agency Doctors Without Borders (MSF) and local staff.
"The problem is we only have one ambulance, for the whole region, so we hear reports that there are many sick people who cannot reach the hospital," he told AFP. "Without treatment, someone can die in as little as eight hours after infection."
Some 1.3 million people displaced by the 7.0 earthquake on January 12 are still crammed into thousands of makeshift camps in Port-au-Prince, and aid agencies fear cholera could spread like wildfire in such conditions.
But earlier this week, MSF's field coordinator in Saint-Marc was optimistic the epidemic was under control.
"The fact that we are seeing fewer severe cases is positive," said Federica Nogarotto. "It suggests that people are taking precautions and that there is a greater understanding in the community of the need to maintain strict hygiene and to seek medical assistance at the first sign of symptoms."
But the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the outbreak is far from over and Haiti should prepare for the disease to hit its capital and the teeming tent cities.
"We cannot say it is contained," WHO's cholera chief Claire-Lise Chaignat told journalists in Geneva, recommending Haitian authorities prepare for the "worst-case scenario" -- cholera in the capital.
Fear of the disease is turning to anger here, as Haitians begin to blame foreign aid workers and peacekeepers for the deadly outbreak.
The installation of a vital treatment center in Saint-Marc had to be halted on Wednesday after hundreds of residents confronted doctors and aid workers, fueled by fear the facility would spread cholera to two nearby schools.