Image: People suffering cholera symptoms rest in a hospital
Ramon Espinosa  /  AP
People suffering cholera symptoms rest in a hospital in Grande-Saline, Haiti on Saturday. news services
updated 10/24/2010 2:08:59 PM ET 2010-10-24T18:08:59

A cholera epidemic in Haiti has killed more than 250 people, the government said on Sunday, but it added the outbreak that has sickened more than 3,000 may be stabilizing with fewer deaths and new cases reported over the last 24 hours.

"We have registered a diminishing in numbers of deaths and of hospitalized people in the most critical areas ... The tendency is that it is stabilizing, without being able to say that we have reached a peak," Gabriel Thimote, director-general of Haiti's Health Department, told a news conference.

The accumulated deaths since the cholera outbreak began around a week ago in the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean nation stood at 253, while total cases were 3,015, mostly in central rural regions straddling the Artibonite river.

Thimote said that whereas previously the hospital in Saint-Marc in the Artibonite region was recording deaths by dozens, it had registered only one on Saturday.

However, five cases have been reported in Port-au-Prince, the nation's capital, intensifying worries that the contagious disease could spread to the squalid tent camps that house about 1.3 million survivors of the country's Jan. 12 earthquake.

U.N. officials stressed that the five Port-au-Prince cases, the first confirmed in the capital since the epidemic started, were people who had become infected in the main outbreak zone of Artibonite north of Port-au-Prince and had subsequently traveled to the city where they fell sick.

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"They were very quickly diagnosed and isolated," U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Imogen Wall told Reuters, citing information from Haitian health authorities. "This is not a new location of infection."

Still, prevention measures and surveillance were being increased in Port-au-Prince, where those in tent cities are highly vulnerable to a virulent diarrhea disease like cholera. U.N. peacekeepers were erecting cholera treatment centers — structures large enough to treat 150 cases each — in the main outbreak region of Artibonite, in the overcrowded capital Port-au-Prince and in the Center province.

Number falling ill rises
With more than 3,000 cholera cases reported, Haitian and international medical teams are working desperately to isolate and contain the epidemic in the Artibonite and Central Plateau regions, north of the rubble-strewn capital.

"We are planning for the worst-case scenario here ... we have to be ready for this," Wall said. The 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) is helping to put up the cholera treatment centers.

It is the worst medical emergency to strike the poor, disaster-prone Caribbean nation since the earthquake killed up to 300,000 people and is also the first cholera epidemic in Haiti in a century.

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Cholera, transmitted by contaminated water and food, can kill in hours if left untreated, through dehydration. But it can be treated easily with oral rehydration salts or just a simple mix of water, sugar and salt. TV and radio ads in Creole recommended that treatment to the population.

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'No safety cordon'
Daniel Rouzier, chairman of the Board of Trustees of U.S.-based charity Food for the Poor, earlier told Reuters he had learned of the five cholera cases at private clinics in the capital. "It was not originally in the geographical area of the camps. Now it is," he said.

Rouzier, whose charity has sent water purification units to the cholera-infected central zones, faulted the Haitian government and its aid partners for not moving quickly and effectively enough to contain and isolate the epidemic.

Image: A patient is helped outside St. Nicolas
Thony Belizaire  /  AFP - Getty Images
A patient is helped outside St. Nicolas Hospital in St. Marc, north of Port-au-Prince.

"Right now, it's been over 72 hours. There is no safety cordon," he said. "If the sick had the proper healthcare where they were, they wouldn't have come to this chaotic city."

Aid workers in the town of Saint-Marc, in the heart of the Artibonite outbreak zone, have reported the main local hospital overflowing with patients, many lying outside in the compound hooked up to intravenous drips.

Haiti is due to hold presidential and legislative elections on Nov. 28 but it is not clear whether the epidemic could threaten the organization of the vote.

In the crowded camps that fill squares, streets, parks and even a golf course in Port-au-Prince, fears of contracting the disease are running high.

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"All we can do is pray to God because if we catch this disease in these camps, it will be a real disaster," said Helen Numa, 35. "You can see for yourself how people are living here, packed in like sardines."

Haitian Health Minister Alex Larsen has urged people to wash their hands with soap, not eat raw vegetables, boil all food and drinking water and avoid bathing in and drinking from rivers. The Artibonite River, which irrigates all of central Haiti, is believed to be contaminated.

But many in the capital's camps said they did not have money to buy soap and chlorine to apply hygiene measures.

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"We don't have anything, not even one dollar, because we don't have jobs," said Marjorie Lebrun, 45. "I'm afraid if I and my five children get sick, we could die."

Wall said the relief effort in Haiti had enough antibiotics to treat 100,000 cases of cholera and intravenous fluids to treat 30,000. But those would need replenishing.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Video: Cholera kills more than 200 in Haiti


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