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Waterborne killer

Health workers worry that a deadly cholera outbreak in Haiti could grow worse

Issue: "A second chance," Nov. 20, 2010

When David Darg arrived at a hospital in St. Marc, Haiti, he found what he calls "a horror scene." Darg is part of a team of workers from Operation Blessing-a Christian relief organization delivering supplies to Haitian communities struck with a cholera outbreak that threatens to grow worse. By early November, health workers reported nearly 300 cholera-related deaths and at least 4,100 infections. They worried that the disease-which began north of Port-au-Prince-could spread to the beleaguered capital city.

"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 his group's blog. "The hospital was overwhelmed, caught suddenly by one of the fastest killers there is: cholera."

Haiti isn't the only nation overwhelmed. The United Nations reported that cholera has killed more than 1,500 victims in Nigeria and has infected another 40,000. Officials reported several hundred deaths in neighboring Cameroon, and called it the worst outbreak in the region since 1991.

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While heavy rains likely worsened the spread of the waterborne disease in Nigeria, the African nation suffers from the same ills that afflict Haiti: poor infrastructure and lack of clean drinking water. The disease-caused by a bacterial infection-spreads through contaminated food and water, and causes severe diarrhea and vomiting. Without a simple treatment, some victims die within hours.

The World Health Organization warned that health workers in Haiti should prepare for the cholera outbreak to reach Port-au-Prince-a grim prospect for thousands living in squalid tent cities around the capital city since the January earthquake that left more than 1 million homeless.

A slew of aid organizations are trying to slow the disease in Haiti: Operation Blessing and Water Missions International-both Christian relief groups-are installing water treatment systems that can provide clean drinking water to tens of thousands. Samaritan's Purse dispatched water, medical, and sanitation teams to the hardest-hit areas. World Vision distributed soap and hygiene items to affected villages.

Health workers said it's difficult to estimate when a cholera outbreak might end: Victims can carry the disease for days without presenting symptoms. And it's difficult to know how many Haitians are infected: With illnesses like diarrhea already rampant in the island nation, some cholera victims may die without ever seeking treatment.

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.

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