LaPook on Haiti Cholera: I Fear a "Major Disaster"

Patients suffering from diarrhea and other cholera symptoms are helped by other residents as they wait for treatment at the St. Nicholas hospital in Saint Marc, Haiti, Friday, Oct. 22, 2010. An outbreak of cholera in rural central Haiti has killed at least 142 people and sickened hundreds more who overwhelmed the hospital in Saint Marc seeking treatment. AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa

Patients suffering symptoms of cholera await treatment at the St. Nicholas hospital in Saint Marc, Haiti, Friday, Oct. 22, 2010. An outbreak of cholera has killed nearly 200 people as of Saturday, and may spread to the capital, Port-au-Prince.
AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa
We landed in Port-au-Prince about three hours ago to reports of the first cases of cholera in the capital itself. We drove straight to Parc Jean Marie St. Vincent, the largest tent camp in the city.

When I visited this camp last April, I spoke to Dr. Dubique Kobel, a Haitian-born, Cuban med school-educated physician who is the medical director of the park, which is supported by Partners in Health.

Back then there were about 48,000 people. Now Dr. Kobel says there are "over fifty thousand" — exact numbers are hard to come by in Haiti.

The camp is clearly bigger to my eye, with new, small wooden housing structures on the road leading in.

More than 100 people were bathing outside and doing their laundry in very close quarters. The water came from a hand-made well. Kids were splashing about in gutters of water. To my eye, this scene is a set-up for disaster should cholera strike.

Sebastian Petion, who has been our amazing "fixer" (almost a producer) in Haiti, told me that the greatest fear is an outbreak of cholera in the slum areas, where sanitation is much worse than in the tent cities like Parc Marie St. Vincent that are supplied by NGOs.

Dr. Kobel said that yesterday a teenage girl from the camp was hospitalized with suspected cholera — the first possible case in this tent camp — but it is not yet confirmed.

William Lowry, director of Global Development for Clean the World, has been down here since Tuesday the 19th and has heard there is a shortage of kits to diagnose the disease. Lack of rapid diagnosis can cause confusion because there are many other organisms — such as E.coli, shigella and salmonella — that can also cause severe diarrhea.

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Dr. Kobel told me that people are very afraid they will get cholera. On Monday, public health officials will come armed with a loudspeaker on a truck to teach about prevention. A wooden structure is being erected to house suspected cases of cholera in an area where they will not contaminate others.

Of interest, Dr. Kobel told me he feels an outbreak like this may well have come much earlier without the work of the NGOs. They may have delayed the inevitable.

We're now on National Road 1 headed north to St. Marc, the current center of the cholera outbreak.

I fear this will become a major disaster. Haitians have no natural immunity to cholera. The incubation period of up to five days lets seemingly healthy but actually infected people travel, spreading the disease.

This could involve the entire country. I'm praying for a miracle.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook

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