Science, Tech & Environment

Haiti cholera death toll rises

The UN has appealed for nearly $164 million to fight a cholera outbreak in Haiti which has now claimed around 800 lives. Aid agencies are battling to contain cholera in the capital Port-au-Prince, amid fears it will spread through camps housing over a million earthquake survivors. Reporter Sabri Ben-Achour of station WAMU sent this report.

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In Cite Soleil, Haiti's largest and most notorious slum, Alcide Gesmain's daughter lies on a cot. Gesmain says the girl has cholera. �Today about 5 in the morning she got a bellyache.�

The belly ache turned to diarrhea, and then vomiting. When they were walking toward the hospital, she fainted and they had to carry her in. Nine hours later, she's still vomiting. �Only God knows what's gonna happen,� says Gesmain.

Sister Marcella Catozza is a Franciscan nun who runs the Wharf Jeremie Clinic in Cite Soleil. She says she arrived at seven in the morning.

�I had two dead people in front of the clinic � not died but just about to die. They died here ten minutes later.�

The clinic smells like chlorine. Anyone who goes in or out has to walk through a tray of bleach and water. The floors are constantly being mopped. Sister Marcella says about sixty people a day are showing up with symptoms of cholera. Most are so sick they're sent off to larger hospitals.

�Sunday morning the boss of my team called me to tell me we had four dead people here, two young children and one adult , one person on monday, and two during the night between Monday and Thursday, one baby yesterday.� She adds that she doesn't even know if the people she sent to the hospital are still alive.

Outside the clinic, ramshackle sheet metal structures sprawl for miles, with just the tiniest of alleyways between them. The ground is bare dirt packed with trash. Pigs root around in fetid streams. Sister Marcella says they don't have clean drinking water, and they didn't before the earthquake.

�We don't have latrines. I built eight latrines, but they're not enough. One hundred and fifty thousand people are living here, and eight latrines are nothing.�

Cholera spreads easily in areas with poor sanitation. Still, a lot of mystery surrounds the disease here, despite radio announcements and banners going up around town. Benicia Luis is fixing fried chicken for dinner in her home, one of the few concrete homes here. She and her children all have white paste smeared on their upper lips. It's toothpaste.

She says she's heard that people pigs have been digging up the bodies of people who died of cholera and were buried nearby. �They say if you smell the air you can get cholera, too, so we use the toothpaste to block the air.�

Sister Marcella says that education campaigns have been slow to take hold. She says people don't understand why they're being asked to boil water.

Public Health officials say slums like Cite Soleil are actually more at risk than the displaced person camps, because the camps are getting a lot of attention from non-governmental organizations or NGOs � at least when it comes to water. Sister Marcella says Cite Soleil, on the other hand, has become a victim of its reputation.

�This is a very dangerous area,� she says, and a lot of NGOs can't go in.�

She says that means people in the slum are largely left on their own.

Kate Alberti, an epidemiologist with Medecins Sans Frontiers, one of the NGOs addressing the outbreak, says they're very concerned about Port au Prince.

�We're seeing an increase every day in the number of cases. unfortunately this is a trend that will continue for the next few days if not next few weeks. And we're very concerned about the capacity between the ministry of health and major actors to be able to effectively care for these patients.�

More partners, she says, would be helpful.

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