A HOME FOR CHOLERA: Refugee camps, such as those set up for more than a million people displaced by the January earthquake in Haiti, can be prime grounds for the spread of cholera Image: ISTOCKPHOTO/ARINDAMBANERJEE
After a magnitude 7.0 earthquake rocked Haiti in January, many experts worried that devastating outbreaks of infectious diseases would soon invade the region. In a nation where a large part of the population already lived without access to reliable sanitation and clean water, a disaster that further disrupted infrastructure seemed likely to lead to widespread infections, such as cholera, which spreads through feces-contaminated water. Although more than a million people are still living in tent encampments following the disaster, it was not until late last week that news of a potential cholera outbreak first emerged.
Some 259 people have died from the bacterial infection so far and another 3,342 have been sickened, according to Haiti's Ministry of Health, the BBC reports. Officials fear that the outbreak, which seems to have started around the Artibonite and Plateau Central regions, north of the capital, Port-au-Prince, could become endemic to the city, where about 89 percent of residents live in slums or slum-like conditions. Five people there have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), but they likely contracted the illness before arriving in the capital.
"There are limited ways you can wash your hands and keep your hands washed with water in slums like we have here," Michel Thieren, an official from the Pan-American Health Organization, told the Associated Press.
The cause of the disease is the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which releases a toxin that triggers severe diarrhea and rapid dehydration; both effects can quickly prove deadly. Cholera might sound like an ailment that was dispatched in 19th century, but it still infects some three million to five million people worldwide and kills at least 120,000 each year, mainly in India and sub-Saharan Africa.
Although the number of people who have died from the disease in Haiti is lower so far today than it had been over the weekend, the country is still bracing for further spread. "We are preparing ourselves for the worst case scenario, which is a cholera outbreak in the whole country," Michel van Herp, of Doctors Without Borders, told BBC News.
But why is the outbreak just now emerging in Haiti, and how is cholera still a global concern? Scientific American spoke with David Sack, a professor in Global Disease Epidemiology and Control at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, to learn more about the disease and what is being done to control it.
[An edited version of the transcript follows.]
Why do you think this outbreak is happening now, more than nine months after earthquake?
I wish I knew more about the events that led to this outbreak. From what I can gather, the outbreak did not start in the area of the earthquake, so it's not clear that it is directly related to the earthquake. We don't know whether it was introduced or if the bacteria was indigenous to the area and had never been spread before.
Is the current outbreak likely linked to long-term use of these tent-based refugee camps?
The refugee situation makes it much more dangerous, but I'm not sure that's what started the outbreak. You need to have the organism there circulating first. And of course we haven't seen cholera in Haiti for many, many years. Even in the 1990s outbreak in Latin America, it did not jump across to the Caribbean islands.
So how is cholera usually spread?
It is fecal-oral. So the feces get into the food or water supplies, though mainly the water. There is also an environmental reservoir, so it usually starts in the environment.
Cholera can kill within a matter of hours. Who is most at risk for getting—and dying from—cholera?
Anybody can be at risk—it's one that can kill healthy people quickly. We usually think a lot of these diseases will preferentially hit the malnourished or otherwise vulnerable. But cholera is something that can affect anybody.
The main risk factors are people whose stomachs, for whatever reason, are not making the normal amounts of gastric acid—if someone has recently had stomach surgery or is taking drugs that inhibit the production of gastric acid. The other risk factors are genetic, which unfortunately there isn't much you can do about. If your blood type is O, you're at higher risk. When cholera struck Peru, the indigenous people there virtually all have blood type O, and they were at higher risk.
In terms of risk for death, it is people who don't have treatment available. If they don't get treatment in a very short amount of time, they have a very high risk of dying.