As if the people of Haiti already hasn’t had more than their share of perilous times at the hands of mother nature; with an earthquake that took more than a quarter-million lives and left tens of thousands of people homeless, coupled with an outbreak of cholera that threatens to wipe out countless numbers all in one year, here comes a killer tropical storm, claiming many lives and worsening the cholera threat.
Haiti’s civil protection department Monday that at least 20 people — more that double the amount initially reported, died when Hurricane Tomas brushed past the country,
Seven others remain missing and dozens were injured. More than 30,000 people remain in shelters and Tomas left nearly 6,000 families homeless. Others, already homeless from the Jan. 12 earthquake, lost their tents.
The hurricane struck Haiti’s southern peninsula on Friday and traveled up the coast, triggering floods and landslides. But its strongest winds and rain stayed far to the west of the capital, sparing most of the encampments where an estimated 1.3 million people have been living for nearly 10 months.
As the storm passed, officials have been turning their attention back to a worsening cholera epidemic that has killed more than 500 people and hospitalized more than 7,300. Flooding was expected to spread the disease while damage to roads and buildings could make it harder for those sickened to get medical care.
Authorities were monitoring the cholera-laden Artibonite River on Monday after engineers let through extra water to alleviate pressure on a dam on Haiti’s central plateau. Initial reports from the area indicated that flooding was minimal.
Health officials said Monday that they were examining at least 120 suspected cases of cholera in Haiti’s capital, the most significant warning sign yet that the epidemic has spread from outlying areas to threaten as many as 3 million people.
Samples from patients in Port-au-Prince were being tested in a laboratory to confirm the presence of vibrio cholera bacteria, which had already killed at least 544 people in Haiti, Health Ministry Executive Director Gabriel Timothee told The Associated Press.
If confirmed, the bacteria could imperil an estimated 2.5 to 3 million inhabitants, nearly half of whom have been living in tents or under tarps in easily flooded encampments since their houses were destroyed in the Jan. 12 earthquake.
“We are working on the cases. . We don’t have confirmation yet,” Timothee said.
He said many of the hospitalized patients are believed to have recently arrived from parts of Haiti such as the Artibonite Valley, where the epidemic was first registered and has done its most ferocious damage. More than 6,400 of the known 8,138 cases to date have been in the agricultural region, clustered around the Artibonite River.
At least 114 of the people suspected of having the disease in the capital are in the Cite Soleil slum, the expansive oceanside shantytown at the capital’s far northeastern edge and its closest point to the valley.
Since its discovery in late October, the disease has spread to half of Haiti’s 10 administrative regions, or departments. More than 200 people have been hospitalized in the West department, where Port-au-Prince is located, but no cases of cholera have yet been confirmed within the limits of the capital city.
Cholera had never been documented in Haiti before its sudden appearance last month.
In little more than three weeks it is suspected of infecting tens of thousands of people, though only about a quarter of people infected normally develop symptoms of serious diarrhea, vomiting and fever. Nearly 4 percent of the thousands hospitalized have died, most from extreme shock brought on by dehydration.
An analysis by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that the cholera outbreak in Haiti most closely matches a strain of the disease found in South Asia.
Public health experts including U.N. Deputy Special Envoy to Haiti Paul Farmer have called for an aggressive investigation into the origin of the outbreak.
An unconfirmed theory is that the disease was introduced to Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal who are based on a tributary to the Artibonite River.