Haiti cholera death toll soars as election nears, Agence France Presse reports

Haiti on Sunday reported more than 120 new cholera deaths, as health officials and international aid agencies struggled to contain an outbreak that showed no sign of abating.

As concerns rise over massive health challenges in the aftermath of the country’s cataclysmic earthquake, Haiti confronts the hardening prospect of national elections two weeks from now in the midst of a series of disasters.

Nearly one month after cholera took hold in the desperately poor Caribbean nation, the number of fatalities soared to 917, up considerably from Friday’s 796 recorded deaths.

Of Haiti’s 10 provinces, six now have been touched by the dreaded disease according to the health ministry, which said 14,642 people so far have been treated in hospital, about 2,300 more than on Friday.

At least 27 of the deaths were recorded in the teeming capital Port-au-Prince, including its largest slum Cite Soleil and its suburbs.

Most of those treated already have been released, but a wave of new infections is swamping understaffed and ill-prepared hospitals and clinics across the country.

Officials fear the scale of the epidemic could increase exponentially if cholera infiltrates makeshift camps in Port-au-Prince where hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors live in cramped and unsanitary conditions.

A cataclysmic earthquake flattened much of the capital in January, leaving more than a quarter people dead and an estimated 1.3 million of Haiti’s 10 million population displaced.

Amid the crises, Haitians are due to vote for a new president and parliamentarians in late November.

Mirlande Manigats, the candidate who leads in polls ahead of the vote to succeed outgoing President Rene Preval, said it would be “unreasonable” for officials to postpone the election despite the crises.

“The general situation is not favorable for elections, because of the earthquake, health problems, cholera (and) hurricanes” among the most pressing crises facing the country, Manigats told AFP.

But “we are now at a point when we cannot step back” from the election, “because there is a momentum within the population,” the former first lady and longtime opposition leader said.

Candidate Leslie Voltaire also urged authorities to hold the vote as scheduled on November 28.

“We can not postpone the election because of the cholera. You never know, if you postpone the election by a month or two, the cholera may be worse than it is today.”

The United Nations is asking for 164 million US dollars to fight the epidemic, which has gained strength over the past week and spread to Port-au-Prince, and has warned that aid efforts could be “overrun by the epidemic” without urgent global financial assistance.

The bulk of the requested money — around 89 million US dollars — will be used for water, sanitation and hygiene, while 43 million will be used for health, and 19 million for efforts in the camps housing people displaced by the earthquake, UN officials said.

Conditions were aggravated dramatically earlier this month when Hurricane Tomas brought heavy rains which caused rivers to burst their banks, including the Artibonite River, which is believed to be the conduit of the disease.

The aid group Save the Children said 40 percent of those who have died in the epidemic were not in a hospital or clinic, suggesting they had no treatment or had not recognized symptoms of a disease that can kill within hours.

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