An outbreak of severe diarrhea in rural central Haiti has killed at least 54 people and sickened hundreds more who overwhelmed a crowded hospital Thursday seeking treatment.
Hundreds of patients lay on blankets in a parking lot outside St. Nicholas hospital in the port city of St. Marc with IVs in their arms for rehydration. As rain began to fall in the afternoon, nurses rushed to carry them inside.
Doctors were testing for cholera, typhoid and other illnesses in the Caribbean nation's deadliest outbreak since a January earthquake that killed as many as 300,000 people.
"What we know is that people have diarrhea, and they are vomiting, and (they) can go quickly if they are not seen in time," said Catherine Huck, country deputy for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. She said doctors were still awaiting lab results to pinpoint the disease.
The president of the Haitian Medical Association, Claude Surena, said his unofficial count based on information from doctors and hospitals in the region indicated as many as 135 people had died and 1,500 were infected. He said the cause appeared to be cholera, but that had not been confirmed by the government.
"The concern is that it could go from one place to another place, and it could affect more people or move from one region to another one," he said.
Cholera is a waterborne bacterial infection spread through contaminated water. It causes severe diarrhea and vomiting that can lead to dehydration and death within hours. Treatment involves administering a salt and sugar-based rehydration serum.
The sick come from across the rural Artibonite region, which did not experience significant damage in the Jan. 12 quake but has absorbed thousands of refugees from the devastated capital 45 miles (70 kilometers) south of St. Marc.
Government figures list a total of 54 people dead and 619 ill, said Yolaine Surena, a coordinator for Haiti's civil protection department.
Some patients said they drank water from a public canal, while others said they bought purified water. All complained of symptoms including fever, vomiting and severe diarrhea.
"I ran to the bathroom four times last night vomiting," said 70-year-old Belismene Jean Baptiste.Trucks loaded with medical supplies including rehydration salts were to be sent from Port-au-Prince to the hospital, said Jessica DuPlessis, an OCHA spokeswoman. Doctors at the hospital said they also needed more personnel to handle the flood of patients.
Elyneth Tranckil was among dozens of relatives standing outside the hospital gate as new patients arrived near death.
"Police have blocked the entry to the hospital, so I can't get in to see my wife," Tranckil said.
The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince issued an advisory urging people to drink only bottled or boiled water and eat only food that has been thoroughly cooked.