Amid fears that last weekend's hurricane rains has spread cholera's tentacles further into the nation, the first 'isolated' cases of cholera were reported in the Haitian capital. Officials now warn that the disease could spread like wildfire in Port-au-Prince's squalid refugee camps.
Health Ministry chief of staff Ariel Henry told AFP that while there is no widespread infection in the capital so far, a sizeable outbreak here now appears likely.
"It's coming," Henry warned, adding that two deaths believed to have been caused by cholera were being probed by health officials, who planned a press conference in Port-au-Prince later Tuesday to discuss the developments.
Health authorities fear that cholera could infiltrate the cramped, unsanitary Port-au-Prince camps where hundreds of thousands of people who bathe, wash and cook right next to each other, run the risk of spreading the ailment like wildfire.
The Haitian capital for weeks had evaded the epidemic, but Hurricane Tomas appears to have contributed to its arrival here, after the storm-swollen Artibonite River -- the presumed source of the outbreak -- overflowed its banks over the weekend.
Tomas barreled into Haiti on Friday, bringing torrential rains and packing winds up to 85 miles (135 kilometers) per hour.
In the end, the capital was spared the brunt of the storm, but Tomas submerged coastal towns like Leogane in floodwaters, triggered dangerous mudslides inland and wiped out roads and bridges, completely cutting off some rural communities from help.
Even worse hit was the southwestern department of Grand'Anse, where eight people were killed by Tomas. Nearly 900 Haitian homes were destroyed nationwide and another 5,000 damaged as the huge storm skirted past.
As the storm approached, thousands of displaced people scrambled onto buses to evacuate the flimsy tents and tarpaulin sheets of the cramped refugee camps around Port-au-Prince.
But even in the best of times, much of Haiti's population of just under 10 million live in precarious conditions, vulnerable to natural disasters, after mountainsides have been stripped of trees to be used as fuel, increasing the risk of landslides.
Tomas was just the latest in a series of heavy blows for besieged Haiti in the wake of January's quake that killed 250,000 people and left more than a million homeless -- many of them forced to live in the country's fetid tent cities.
Now the cholera epidemic, in addition to causing hundreds of deaths in Haiti's provinces, has sent more than 8,000 people to the hospital.
Although easily treated, the water-borne bacterial disease has a short incubation period and causes acute diarrhea that can quickly lead to severe dehydration and death.
Meanwhile, aid groups worried about remote areas where residents don't have access to clinics or hospitals.
"Outside of the larger population centers, it is critical that smaller, dispersed communities are able to access treatment," said Kate Alberti, an epidemiologist working for Doctors Without Borders.
"We are very concerned about the spread of the epidemic in rural areas, where transport to existing health structures is difficult," Alberti said.
"Treatment centers need to be established and existing ones further supported in order to ensure rapid access to treatment."