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Health Team

Haiti dealing with deadly cholera epidemic

Posted November 8, 2010 5:30 p.m. EST
Updated November 8, 2010 6:33 p.m. EST

— Still recovering from the aftermath of last January's earthquake, the island nation of Haiti is facing new concerns with a cholera epidemic, and new flooding is expected to increase disease concerns.

Hurricane Tomas flooded earthquake survivor camps in Haiti and is expected to further spread the disease, which has already killed 442 people and sickened almost 7,000. The cholera organism is typically spread through contaminated food or water and causes severe diarrhea.

“In fact, patients with this type of gastroenteritis can lose up to 10 percent of their body weight just in a few hours,” UNC epidemiologist Dr. David Weber said.

Weber, an infectious disease expert, says the mortality rate from cholera can be as high as 50 to 70 percent.

Officials say a river in Haiti has been the biggest source of the organism that causes the disease, and hurricane flooding could carry it into tent cities and earthquake-damaged villages, infecting drinking water supplies.

Weber says cholera is rare in the United States.

“But worldwide, this is a major problem in developing countries, particularly when there are natural disasters, such as hurricanes and flooding that contaminate the drinking water supply with the sewage supply,” he said.

Weber says boiling water for one minute is the best way to eliminate the organism, but many Haitians don't have the wood or other fuel necessary to boil water used for drinking, cooking and cleaning.

Weber recommends that relief workers in Haiti drink only bottled water or sodas and to stay away from food from local vendors. They should also only eat properly cooked food and practice good hand hygiene using a cleanser containing alcohol.