With 73 people hospitalized for cholera in this quake-battered capital, the epidemic is spreading and has officially made its way into Haiti’s largest city.
“We are on a rise,” said Christian Lindmeier, spokesman for the World Health Organization in Haiti. “The figures will climb.”
The cholera death toll now stands at 583, and 9,123 Haitians have been hospitalized with acute diarrhea, Haiti’s health ministry said Tuesday.
The increase comes amid fears that flooding from last week’s Hurricane Tomas will trigger more hospitalizations and even more deaths from the illness that is spread by drinking contaminated water.
Haitian government health officials acknowledged that the epidemic is evolving and has not yet peaked.
“This is now a matter of national security,” said Dr. Gabriel Timothee, director general of the Ministry of Health.
Cholera is now present in half of Haiti’s 10 geographical departments.
The spread of the disease to Port-au-Prince is worrisome because the overcrowded capital is not only home to most of the 1.5 million people displaced by the Jan. 12 earthquake and still living in tents or under tarps but also to hundreds of thousands of other people living without access to safe drinking water and proper sanitation.
Among those who have become ill are 115 people who sought treatment at a hospital in Cité Soleil, a teeming slum in the capital, Timothee said. Officials say they are still awaiting lab results to see if the patients have cholera or another illness that causes similar symptoms.
At least one of those who arrived at the Cité Soleil hospital has died.
Despite interviews with family members, health officials cannot say for certain the person did not travel to the lower Artibonite region where the cholera epidemic first broke out.
In recent weeks, health officials have been working hard to keep cholera at bay in Port-au-Prince.
“The increasing numbers of cases of suspected cholera in our facilities throughout Port-au-Prince are certainly alarming,” said Stefano Zannini, head of mission for Doctors Without Borders in Haiti.
Haiti’s health ministry, which was the first to acknowledge the cholera outbreak, has taken the lead on informing the public about the waterborne infection.
But the collection of data from several sources and the perception that all diarrhea is a sign of cholera has added to confusion about how many victims there are.
“There comes a point where trying to judge an epidemic by the numbers is misleading,” said Imogen Wall, spokeswoman for the United Nations Office of Coordination for Humanitarian Affairs.
“We know what this is. We know what it looks like. Those numbers are only the people who make it to hospitals and make it on to a statistical radar,” she said.
“As we see some numbers rise, it doesn’t necessarily, by itself, indicate that there is a significant increase in the number of cholera cases; only that the surveillance system that the Haitian government is employing with the support of the United States and international partners is actually improving,” said P.J. Crowley of the U.S. State Department.
Zannini said while the government’s continued public awareness campaigns on preventive measures are important, Haitians need to get immediate treatment at the first sign of illness.
Cholera treatment centers are key in affected areas.