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Health Care Officials in Haiti say Cholera Easily Treated

Nigerian-born Dr. Chibuzo Okonta with Doctors Without Borders attends to a patient in Port-au-Prince
Nigerian-born Dr. Chibuzo Okonta with Doctors Without Borders attends to a patient in Port-au-Prince

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Jeff Swicord

The death toll from the cholera epidemic in Haiti is now nearing 1,200 and more than 18,400 people have been hospitalized since the waterborne disease was first reported in October.  Health care officials are trying to explain to Haitians how to treat it.

Toto Pierre does not know how his young son got sick, but he is happy he is alive and doing better.

"His sister was taking care of him," said Pierre.  "All of a sudden he got sick.  First we went to the hospital and then we came here."

Doctors have treated more than 20,000 cholera patients at 21 centers around the country since the epidemic began.

Stefano Zanini is the chief of mission for Doctors Without Borders. He says it is difficult to predict when the epidemic will peak, but he expects it will continue for several more months.

"We are predicting for example the peak in City Sole, the very poor slums in the north of the capital city between 26 and 29 of November," said Zaini.  "And in another one, two, three weeks, we will probably reach other peaks in other parts of the city and the country."

Medical experts believe the epidemic began as a waterborne bacteria in the Artibonite region north of Port-au-Prince.  Cholera bacteria are spread through fecal contamination, poor hygiene and lack of sanitation.  The bacteria induce severe diarrhea and vomiting.  Victims can die from dehydration in hours.

Health workers say one of the biggest problems they face in Haiti is that people do not understand what cholera is or how it is spread.  We visited this street in downtown Port-au-Prince where people come to get city water.  This water had a foul odor to it.  Getho Landele told us he will bathe, clean and cook with it.

"I am not afraid of getting cholera, but for me it does not exist," he told us.

City officials have asked residents to treat the water they use, and they have distributed treatment tablets to the public.  But many residents like Marie Santilia do not have the tablets and cannot afford bottled water.

"I am afraid, but I have to use it," she said.

Nigerian-born Dr. Chibuzo Okonta with Doctors Without Borders says cholera is easy to treat and people die because they do not get treatment fast enough.  

First patients are given a special rehydration solution to drink, then saline solution intravenously.  

"And as soon as people can get to the treatment center and get the oral rehydration therapy, it is all they need.  And once they are well rehydrated, they are as good as new," said Dr. Okonta.

Doctors say, on average, patients are better in three days. Fritz Pierre was at a party at a local hotel.  After eating some meatballs he began to feel sick.  First he went to the hospital, then the cholera treatment center.  After two days of rehydration therapy he is feeling better.

"I told the doctor I was feeling better and he told me if I feel like it I can go home," he said.

Dr. Okonta says his facility has treated 100 patients a day and there have been no deaths here in the last few days.  He told us, hopefully public information campaigns to seek treatment quickly are finally working.

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