Monday, January 24, 2011

Cholera slowing in Haiti, but could surge again this spring

The cholera epidemic in Haiti seems to be slowing. The number of new cases has fallen sharply from the height of the outbreak. Medical professionals warn that there could be another surge in  cholera cases this spring. The rainy season to come could bring flooding of dirty water contaminated with cholera. So far 4,000 people have died of this cholera outbreak.

From this Associated Press article hosted at Google News, we receive an update from Medecins Sans Frontieres doctors working in Haiti.

"The general situation is improving. It's clear," Stefano Zannini, chief of mission for the aid group Doctors Without Borders, said Sunday. "The problem is that the possible development of the epidemic is unpredictable. It is impossible to say whether the situation will continue stabilizing."

Any progress on controlling disease would be rare bit of good news for Haiti, which is passing through a particularly gloomy period. The country is on edge amid a political crisis over a disputed presidential election, and could see more of the violent protests that paralyzed cities and hampered cholera treatment in December. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands are still homeless from last year's earthquake, and a much-reviled former dictator suddenly returned and took up residence in the past week.

Zannini, whose group is contemplating scaling back its more than 40 cholera treatment centers, was unable to muster even cautious optimism regarding the disease. The best he could say was that he was happy new cases and deaths are decreasing to levels not seen since soon after the disease emerged in October.

"I would not be optimistic," he said in an interview with The Associated Press at his Port-au-Prince office.

For the moment, at least, the statistics are moving in the right direction. The number of new cases has dropped to about 4,700 per week, down from more than 12,000 per week in November, and the trend is downward in all 10 of Haiti's departments, or regions, according to the Health Ministry's latest bulletin, released Thursday. The only places it appears to be still rising are in a few isolated spots in the northwest and south.

Some 40 patients a day are still coming to the Doctors Without Borders treatment center in Saint Marc, where the disease first exploded, but that's a third of what it was in December and there hasn't been a death in six weeks, said field coordinator Oscar Sanchez Rey.

"Is this is the end? Nobody really knows, but the situation is better," Sanchez said as he took a break from treating patients, including a family of six that all came down with the disease together. He cautioned that even though fewer people are getting sick, the center's work is still critical: "If no one is treating patients, they are going to die, because it's a lethal disease."

Lilane Estime, 42, tried to sleep on a wooden bench as doctors attended to three of her children. She said all four had piled onto a motorcycle taxi and traveled an hour along a dusty coastal road to reach the clinic. Seemingly healthy, she said she could feel cholera inside her, though she hadn't gotten sick yet.

"If there's a disease going around killing people, you're going to be scared," Estime said.

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