PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti’s government announced Sunday that at least eight people have died of cholera, raising concerns about a possible rapidly spreading scenario and reviving memories of an epidemic that killed nearly 10,000 people a decade ago.
The cases – the first reported cholera deaths in three years – occurred in a community called Dekayet in southern Port-au-Prince and the gang-controlled coastal slum of Cite de Soleil, where thousands of people live in cramped, unsanitary conditions.
“Cholera is something that can spread very, very quickly,” warned Laure Adrienne, director general of Haiti’s health ministry.
Food or water contaminated with cholera bacteria can lead to severe diarrhea and dehydration that can be fatal.
The United Nations said in a statement that it was working with the Haitian government to “take an urgent response to this potential outbreak,” stressing that health teams must be guaranteed safe access to areas where cases have been reported.
The deaths come as fuel shortages and ongoing protests have shut down the availability of basic services across Haiti, including medical care and clean water, which are key to fighting cholera and keeping patients alive.
Haiti’s most powerful gang continues to control the entrance to a main fuel terminal in the capital Port-au-Prince, leading to fuel shortages amid soaring prices that have sparked widespread protests that have paralyzed the country for more than two weeks.
The lack of fuel and the increasing number of roadblocks have prevented water trucks from visiting neighborhoods to provide drinking water to those who can afford it. It has also prompted some companies to temporarily shut down their operations.
On Sunday, the Caribbean Bottling Company said it could no longer produce or distribute drinking water because its diesel reserves had been “completely depleted”, adding that the shortage of such a vital resource would affect “all sectors of society”.
Adrien said health officials were trying to visit communities where cholera has been reported, but that his service has also been affected by the fuel shortage as he called on people blocking the gas terminal and staging protests to “be aware”.
“This is a real problem,” he said of how the country has essentially been paralyzed. “Hopefully this won’t spread.”
Adrien noted that not everyone who died was able to reach a hospital in time.
Haitian Health Minister Alex Larsen said people have a right to protest, but asked Haitians to allow drinking water to be provided to neighborhoods disrupted by barricades and protests.
“The water hasn’t existed in these areas for a long time and people don’t drink treated water,” he said, adding that cholera cases may rise again. “We ask people who can afford it to add some chlorine to the water.”
The latest cholera outbreak in Haiti sickened more than 850,000 people in a country of more than 11 million people, marking one of the world’s worst outbreaks of the preventable disease in recent history.
United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal were blamed for introducing cholera into Haiti’s largest river in October 2010 from sewage. The UN has since acknowledged that it played a role in the outbreak and that it has not done enough to help fight it, but has not specifically said it introduced the disease.
Haiti would have been declared free of cholera by the World Health Organization only after completing three consecutive years without new cases.
Associated Press writer Dánica Coto in San Juan, Puerto Rico contributed.