(CBS/AP) Doctors and aid groups are rushing to set up cholera treatment centers across Haiti's capital as officials warn that the disease's encroachment into the overcrowded city of Port-au-Prince will bring a surge in cases.
Hundreds of people were already suspected of having cholera, suffering the disease's symptoms of fever and diarrhea while lying in hospital beds or inside shacks lining the putrid waste canals of Cite Soleil - one of the most dismal of the country's slums.
"We expect transmission to be extensive and we have to be prepared for it, there's no question," Dr. Jon K. Andrus, deputy director of the Pan-American Health Organization, told reporters Tuesday. "We have to prepare for a large upsurge in numbers of cases and be prepared with supplies and human resources and everything that goes into a rapid response."
Cholera has killed more than 580 Haitians and hospitalized more than 9,500, with confirmed cases across the entire northern two-thirds of the country.
The disease, which is preventable, is primarily spread when infected fecal matter contaminates food or water. Cholera is treatable mainly by rehydrating the sick with safe water mixed essentially with salt, sugar and potassium or with intravenous fluids. Antibiotics also are used sometimes.
But decades of failing and often regressing infrastructure - wracked by political upheaval, unbalanced foreign trade, a 1990s embargo and natural disasters - have left millions of Haitians without access to clean water, sanitation or medical care.
Port-au-Prince is estimated to be home to between 2.5 million and 3 million people, about half of whom have been living in homeless encampments since the Jan. 12 earthquake ravaged the capital.
Haitian and foreign aid workers continued campaigns to tell people to wash their hands, cook food thoroughly and take other precautions against the spread of the disease.