ST. MARC, Haiti — A cholera epidemic was spreading in central Haiti on Friday as aid groups rushed doctors and supplies to fight the country's deadliest health crisis since January's earthquake.
At least 150 people have died and more than 1,500 are sick, said Rob Quick, a specialist with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Cholera is a bacterial infection spread through contaminated water. It causes severe diarrhea and vomiting that can lead to dehydration and death within hours. Officials are concerned the outbreak could reach the squalid tarp camps where hundreds of thousands of quake survivors live in the capital.
Imogen Wall, a spokeswoman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, said the sick patients and the contagious remains of the dead are insufficiently quarantined.
The sick come from across the desolate Artibonite Valley, a region that received thousands of refugees after the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people and destroyed the capital, Port-au-Prince, 45 miles south of St. Marc. Most of the new arrivals have been taken in by host families.
Scores of patients lay on the floor awaiting treatment at the St. Nicholas hospital in the seaside city of St. Marc, some of them brushing away flies on mattresses stained with human feces.
The number of cases will continue to grow because Haitians do not have any built-up immunity to cholera, according to Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization's Regional Office for the Americas, which is sending medical teams to the neighboring Dominican Republic as a preventive measure.
"We have all the things in place for something we know will get bigger," Andrus said.
The cholera outbreak spread rapidly.
On Tuesday, the first cases started arriving at the 200-bed government hospital in St. Marc operated by the Partners in Health medical aid group.
By Thursday, the hospital had admitted 500 cholera patients. By Friday, there were 437 more, said PIH spokesman Andrew Marx.
"We have people crowding in the halls. We have people being treated outside the hospital,'' he said.
Other health care facilities in the region have also been overwhelmed, including the Hospital Albert Schweitzer in Deshapelles, he said.
PIH has sent trucks with bullhorns through St. Marc to warn residents of hazards of drinking contaminated water, "and to educate people of the need to wash their hands religiously,'' Marx said. Community health workers are spreading the same message to residents in rural areas.
Based on the location of the cases, Marx said, the cholera appears to have been spread directly by the Artibonite River.
"People rely on that for drinking water and, regrettably, in some instances, as a sewage system.''
This report included information from Times staff writer Dan DeWitt and the Associated Press.