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Associated Press/Photo by Sophia Paris (MINUSTAH)

Outbreaks

Health | The deadly disease cholera menaces vulnerable victims from Haiti to West Africa

Health officials said they are still preparing for worst-case scenarios in Haiti after a cholera outbreak killed more than 250 victims and infected more than 3,300 over the last week. UN workers said that while signs indicated the disease was subsiding, the agency is still preparing for the possibility of a wider outbreak since victims can carry the disease for several days without presenting symptoms.

Patients began flooding local hospitals north of the capital city of Port-au-Prince last week, suffering from the gruesome effects of cholera: severe diarrhea and vomiting. Without proper hydration and antibiotics, cholera victims can die within hours.

David Darg of the Christian relief group Operation Blessing said he and other members of his organization arrived at a "horror scene" when they brought supplies to a hospital in the town of St. Nicholas. "Children were screaming and writhing in agony, others were motionless with their eyes rolled into the back of their heads as doctors and nursing staff searched desperately for a vein to give them an IV," Darg wrote on the group's website. "The hospital was overwhelmed, caught suddenly by one of the fastest killers there is: cholera."

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The disease, caused by a bacterial infection, spreads through contaminated water and food. Cholera spreads quickly in regions with poor sanitation and lack of clean drinking water-problems that plagued Haiti even before the January earthquake that left more than 1 million Haitians homeless. So far, medical workers reported only a handful of cases in Port-au-Prince, but said more infections could lead to a rapid spread in tent cities populated by thousands of people living in unsanitary conditions.

A slew of aid organizations are working to help prevent the disease from spreading and to treat victims: Operation Blessing is providing water purification systems to hardest hit areas. The systems can provide clean drinking water to tens of thousands. Water Missions International-another Christian relief group-is also providing water treatment systems. Samaritan's Purse dispatched water, medical, sanitation, and hygiene teams to help combat the disease. World Vision mobilized distributions of soap and hand sanitizer, and sent teams to educate villagers on how to prevent contracting the disease.

Haiti isn't the only nation suffering from cholera. Health officials in Nigeria reported a far worse outbreak in the West African nation: The UN reported that cholera has killed more than 1,500 victims in Nigeria and infected another 40,000. Officials said it's the worse outbreak in the country since 1991.

Nigeria is especially vulnerable to the disease: The country's health ministry reports that nearly two-thirds of rural Nigerians lack access to clean drinking water, and that fewer than 40 percent of the population in affected areas have access to even rudimentary sanitation systems.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.

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