Nov 9, 2010 (CIDRAP News) – Amid reports of the first cholera confirmations in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said today it expects cases to surge over the coming days due to widespread hurricane flooding.
At a press conference today, Dr Jon Andrus, PAHO's deputy director, said that although the impact of Hurricane Tomas wasn't as severe as originally predicted, flooding and mudslides from the storm have pushed rivers over their banks, likely contributing to the further spread of cholera. In a situation report yesterday, PAHO also said population movements due to storm evacuations could further raise the risk of disease spread.
"Cholera is a complex public health emergency under any circumstances, and certainly in Haiti, the hemisphere's poorest country, the problem is even more complex," he told reporters, noting that initial assessments suggest that Haiti's agricultural sector took the hardest hit, with flooded fields and major livestock and crop losses.
The most recent numbers yesterday from Haiti's health ministry are more than 9,100 hospitalized cases and 583 deaths. The case total includes 73 reported from Port-au-Prince. Health authorities have feared cholera's spread to the capital, where hundreds of thousands are living in crowded tent cities amid rubble from a January earthquake.
Andrus warned reporters that they may hear different case numbers from different sources. The cholera outbreak has slowed the health ministry's progress in upgrading its surveillance system and has faced challenges integrating different case counts from different health providers throughout the country.
He added that PAHO has mobilized epidemiology experts to the area to improve reporting. "The case numbers are not as important as the underlying trends, and our top priority is treating the sick and preventing new cases," Andrus said.
Health officials predict that Haiti's cholera outbreak could last several years, as Peru's did in 1991, he said. Based on that pattern, cholera cases in Haiti could reach 270,000 before disease activity winds down.
Before the hurricane landfall PAHO pre-positioned cholera and other medical supplies in the southern and northern parts of the country, the capital, and in some of the hardest-hit disease areas, such as St Marc.
He said the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti has said there is no reason to stall elections scheduled for Nov 28. Voting isn't expected to pose a cholera health hazard, Andrus added. "In fact, the health ministry is planning to use the occasion to disseminate prevention messages to the population. It will help prevent the spread of infection."
Nov 8 PAHO situation report