Cholera has spread to Cap Haitien, the city in Haiti where a Portland-based group works to improve health conditions.

Nate Nickerson, executive director of the nonprofit Konbit Sante, said five cases of the deadly disease were confirmed Thursday night in Cap Haitien, the nation’s second largest city.

Nickerson wrote in an e-mail Friday that a triage site had been set up outside Justinian University Hospital in Cap Haitien, where Konbit Sante has focused its health efforts in the poverty-stricken country during the past decade.

“The gymnasium near the hospital will be used for a treatment and isolation center,” he wrote.

Until Thursday, Cap Haitien had been spared any cases of the cholera.

The Rev. Marc Boisvert, a Lewiston native who operates an orphanage and school outside Les Cayes, reported on his blog a week ago that no cases of the deadly disease had been documented in his region. It appears the situation in Les Cayes has not changed since.

Cap Haitien is located in the north and Les Cayes in the south. Almost all of the cholera cases since the outbreak was confirmed on Oct. 21 have been in the central part of the country, but late last week they began to surface in the northern region.

As of Thursday, 303 people out of 4,722 confirmed cases had died, according to the latest report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

Speaking earlier in the week by cell phone, Nickerson said there was some guarded optimism that the epidemic was slowing.

“But the course of such things is not entirely predictable and it is best to work hard to be prepared for the worst,” he said.

Nickerson said in his e-mail Friday that volunteers are still optimistic that a major education campaign and response has slowed the epidemic.

Other Mainers with ties to Haiti have been checking on the status of friends and relatives in the poverty-stricken country.

Pam Lee, who has opened her Kennebunkport home to two Haitian men wounded and displaced in the Jan. 12 earthquake, said so far everyone she is in touch with seems to be alright.

“They are right in the line of fire, but so far everyone we have close contact with has been safe,” she said.

Nickerson, who has been in the country for the past four weeks, said Konbit Sante has been working hard with the government and public health organizations to prevent the spread of the disease.

They’ve been helping to alert and educate people about cholera and procure the supplies needed to respond quickly.

Now that the epidemic has arrived, said Nickerson, Konbit Sante is providing logistics support. He said the hospital leadership and its partners have a good plan in place going forward.

Cholera is an acute inflammation of the intestines that causes diarrhea and vomiting. Untreated, it can kill within hours.

It is transmitted largely by feces-contaminated water and is one of the leading causes of death, sickening 3 million to 5 million people and killing 100,000 worldwide annually.

Nickerson said that although the public education campaign to alert Haitians to the cholera outbreak has been effective, the poorest Haitians have no access to clean water.

“This is one more tragedy in a whole litany of them,” he said.

Boisvert, a Roman Catholic priest, wrote on his blog a week ago that the wells at Hope Village compound, which houses 600 orphans and educates 1,300 students, are tested regularly and children are taught not to drink from other sources.

“To be safe, we are treating our drinking water for the children with AquaTabs,” he wrote. AquaTabs are water purification tablets.

Nickerson says the outbreak highlights the water quality issues in Haiti.

He said only a third of the residents of Cap Haitien have the use of some sort of toilet, and most residents live without running water, sewers or electricity.

“Obviously, if everyone had access to clean water, cholera couldn’t take hold,” he said.

Nickerson said the complete deforestation of Haiti has resulted in the contamination of underground aquifers by sewage and salt water.

When Konbit Sante first arrived in Cap Haitien a decade ago, the Justinian Hospital’s own water supply was unsafe.

“All the water coming through the faucets was contaminated,” he said.

Volunteer engineers from Maine fixed the problem.

Now his organization is trying to improve water quality in the surrounding community, which would help end much of the illness.

The supplies Konbit Sante has obtained will be useful even if no more cases surface, said Nickerson.

“All of the supplies that we are bringing in are badly needed anyway for the baseline diarrheal illnesses that routinely take the lives of many children here, day in and day out,” he said.

 

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at:

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