World

Severe diarrhea kills dozens in Haiti

An outbreak of severe diarrhea in rural central Haiti has killed at least 135 people and sickened hundreds more who overwhelmed a crowded hospital Thursday seeking treatment.
People receive rehydration serum in the parking lot of the St. Nicholas hospital in Saint Marc, Haiti, on Thursday. Health officials say an outbreak of severe diarrhea has killed at least 54 and sickened hundreds more. ((Dieu Nalio Chery/Associated Press))

An outbreak of severe diarrhea in rural central Haiti has killed at least 135 people and sickened hundreds more who overwhelmed a crowded hospital Thursday seeking treatment.

Hundreds of patients lay on blankets in a parking lot outside St. Nicholas hospital in the port city of St. Marc with IVs in their arms for rehydration. As rain began to fall in the afternoon, nurses rushed to carry them inside.

Doctors were testing for cholera, typhoid and other illnesses in the Caribbean country's deadliest outbreak since a January earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people.

"What we know is that people have diarrhea, and they are vomiting, and [they] can go quickly if they are not seen in time," said Catherine Huck, country deputy for the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She said doctors were still awaiting lab results to pinpoint the cause.

The president of the Haitian Medical Association, Claude Surena, said his unofficial count based on information from doctors and hospitals in the region indicated as many as 135 people had died and 1,500 were infected. He said the cause appeared to be cholera, but that had not been confirmed by the government.

"The concern is that it could go from one place to another place, and it could affect more people or move from one region to another one," he said.

Cholera, a bacterial infection that spreads through contaminated water, causes severe diarrhea and vomiting that can lead to dehydration and death within hours. Treatment involves administering a salt- and sugar-based rehydration serum.

Drank from public canal

The sick at St. Nicholas hospital have come from across Haiti's rural Artibonite region, which did not experience significant damage in the Jan. 12 quake but has absorbed thousands of refugees from the devastated capital, Port-au-Prince, 70 kilometres south of St. Marc. Government figures list a total of 54 people dead and 619 ill, said Yolaine Surena, a co-ordinator for Haiti's civil protection department.

Some patients said they drank water from a public canal, while others said they bought purified water. All complained of symptoms including fever, vomiting and severe diarrhea.

"I ran to the bathroom four times last night vomiting," said 70-year-old Belismene Jean Baptiste.

Trucks loaded with medical supplies, including rehydration salts, were to be sent from Port-au-Prince to the hospital, said Jessica DuPlessis, a UN spokeswoman. Doctors at the hospital said they also needed more personnel to handle the flood of patients.

Elyneth Tranckil was among dozens of relatives standing outside the hospital gate as new patients arrived near death.

"Police have blocked the entry to the hospital, so I can't get in to see my wife," Tranckil said.

The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince issued an advisory urging people to drink only bottled or boiled water and eat only food that has been thoroughly cooked.