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US: Aggressive Response, Stockpiles Should Help Contain Haiti's Cholera Outbreak

UN peacekeepers from Guatemala take a sample of excrement next to the Nepali UN base in Mirebalais, 27 Oct 2010
UN peacekeepers from Guatemala take a sample of excrement next to the Nepali UN base in Mirebalais, 27 Oct 2010

As the number of confirmed cholera cases and deaths in Haiti continue to climb, so do concerns about the spread of the disease in the capital. U.S. officials say Haiti is well positioned to contain the outbreak.

U.S. State Department Spokesman P.J. Crowley says the Haitian government has established 16 treatment centers in Port-au-Prince, which he said are effectively helping the government evaluate the ongoing cholera outbreak and the fallout from Hurricane Tomas.

As of Tuesday afternoon, Haiti's health ministry said more than 580 people had died of cholera-related complications and more than 9,000 people have been hospitalized since the outbreak appeared in late October.

Also Tuesday, the first cholera-related fatality in Port-au-Prince was confirmed, weeks after the outbreak first appeared north of the capital.

Crowley told reporters in Washington Tuesday that Haitian officials had prepared for the possibility that the disease might spread in Port-au-Prince.

"Obviously, the Haitian government in establishing these treatment centers fully anticipates, as I think there were some earlier reports of, an increase in cholera cases in and around the capital," said P.J. Crowley.

The head of Haiti's Ministry of Public Health and Population, Gabriel Timothee, said the government considers the cholera outbreak to be a national security issue.

And Crowley said he believes the Haitian government's aggressive response, in cooperation with the help of international partners, should help to contain the disease.

"Tragically, we know that people will die from cholera even though it is a very treatable disease," he said. "But, through a combination of the improved surveillance, the pre-positioned stocks that are on hand in Haiti, that Haiti is well positioned to contain the outbreak."

The U.S Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance is among the agencies that pre-positioned supplies such as hygiene kits, water containers and blankets, in advance of Hurricane Tomas, which dumped rain on Haiti last week.

Health officials fear, though, that the rains and flooding from Tomas will help the disease to spread. Cholera is caused by ingestion of contaminated food or water, and symptoms include diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration.

As in previous outbreaks, Crowley said officials expect to see the mortality rate, relative to the number of cholera cases, decline.

Haitians are still reeling from a January earthquake that devastated Port-au-Prince and left more than one million people homeless. Many of them still live in dirty, crowded camps.

Crowley said the U.S. will transfer another $120 million to the World Bank for the Haiti reconstruction fund within the next day. That money comes from supplemental funding that was approved by the U.S. Congress.