updated 6/15/2005 4:57:18 PM ET 2005-06-15T20:57:18

Authorities chlorinated wells across the Afghan capital Wednesday amid fears the city of 4 million people was on the verge of a cholera epidemic.

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The waterborne disease has killed eight or nine people and is suspected of infecting more than 2,000, said Fred Hartman, an epidemiologist with a U.S.-supported health project. Abdullah Fahim, an adviser to the health minister, put the death toll at six, up from three Tuesday.

Fahim said there was no reason to panic, but hospitals pitched dozens of tents on their grounds in case of a surge of patients.

The NATO-led international security force in Kabul used a radio station and a newspaper it controls to tell the public about sanitary steps that help avoid the disease, a potentially fatal intestinal ailment generally spread by contaminated water and food.

Fahim said all major water sources, including reservoirs, had been chlorinated. He said teams also had treated about 700 wells, which are the main source of water for many people in Kabul. He said the city is thought to have thousands of wells.

Heavy rains to blame
He said the outbreak of cholera and other waterborne diseases has been caused by heavy rains that raised the level of the groundwater which then mixed with sewage seeping from poorly maintained septic tanks.

“Kabul has no sewage system and septic tanks are close to wells and other water sources,” Fahim said. “Water is easily contaminated.”

Hartman said cholera bacteria had been detected in many wells around the city.

Cholera is a major killer in developing countries. The bacterium attacks the intestine and causes life-threatening diarrhea and dehydration, but can be easily treated if patients are rehydrated quickly.

Fahim said some 3,700 people had been diagnosed with acute diarrhea, but only 33 were confirmed cholera cases. He gave no reason why the official toll for cholera deaths in the past 23 days had doubled since Tuesday.

Hartman, who works closely with the Health Ministry, declined to comment on the government’s lower death toll. He said individuals who show symptoms of cholera receive immediate treatment but are rarely tested to confirm they have the illness.

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