Cholera Spreads in Haitian Capital: Can the Outbreak Be Stopped?

Nurses help a cholera victim into the Hopital de l'Universite d'Etat d'Haiti in Port-au-Prince on November 9, 2010. Haitian officials confirmed the first death from cholera in the ruined capital as the number of sick surged amid fears the outbreak will spread to the city's teeming refugee camps. One person was said to have died in the sprawling Cite Soleil slum, badly hit in the January earthquake which left 1.3 million people homeless in the impoverished Caribbean nation of some 10 million people. For the moment there has been no large scale outbreak of the disease in the capital, but 'it's coming,' warned health ministry chief of staff Ariel Henry. AFP PHOTO Thony BELIZAIRE (Photo credit should read
Nurses help a cholera victim into the Hospital
Nurses help a cholera victim into a hospital in Port-au-Prince on Nov. 9, 2010 (Thony Belizaire/Getty Images)

(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.