In the Haitian city of Gonaives, freshly dug pits at the back of the main cemetery are filling up with dozens of victims. In the capital, Port-au-Prince, hospitals are fast becoming emergency clinics. And in remote villages across much of the country, no one knows how many are dying.
“Un pil moun” is all anyone can say. “A lot of people.”
The official number of dead from Haiti’s cholera epidemic was around 800 Saturday, but the real count is certainly higher as the water-borne disease stalks mountainous areas where people have to walk hours to the nearest hospital and deaths routinely go unrecorded.
As the epidemic worsened, the United Nations on Friday asked donor nations for $164 million to bring in more doctors, medicines and water-purification systems to fight the spread of the disease, saying it could affect 200,000 people in the earthquake-battered nation. So far, 12,303 cases had been confirmed.
The bacteria quickly dehydrates people as they vomit and expel watery diarrhea, and can kill within four hours. Although treatment is relatively simple — oral rehydration solutions or intravenous fluids — it must be administered quickly.
The disease spreads through contaminated water, and Haiti’s public water system is one of the worst in the world. Few people have adequate latrines, and most rely on well water and surface water that is regularly polluted by their waste.
At a hospital in a slum of Gonaives last week, many of the victims said they drank local well water.
“The voodoo priest is where I get my water, in buckets,” said Valerie Marie Cam, whose 3-year-old son was sitting on her lap, hooked up to an IV. “I usually put two drops of Clorox in it, but today I didn’t have any.”
The source of the cholera is unknown. Haiti has not had the disease for at least 50 years, and some scientific literature suggests the nation had not had a major outbreak since the 19th century.
“No one alive in Haiti has experienced cholera before, so it’s a population which is very susceptible to the bacteria,” World Health Organization spokesman Gregory Hartl said. “Cholera, now that it is in Haiti, probably the bacteria will be there for a number of years to come. It will not go away.”
Times wire services contributed to this report.