- Associated Press - Friday, December 3, 2010

LIMBE, HAITI (AP) - A gray-haired woman, her eyes sunken and unfocused from dehydration, stumbles up a dirt path slumped on the shoulder of a young man, heading to a rural clinic so overcrowded that plastic tarps have been strung up outside to shade dozens who can’t fit inside.

On the path to the clinic, another cholera victim lies dazed, her head bleeding because she couldn’t stay atop the motorcycle taxi that carried her along the twisting country roads to the treatment center on the front line of Haiti’s sudden battle with cholera.

Nearby, a 16-month-old girl wails as a nurse prods her with a needle, trying to find a vein for the intravenous fluids she needs to save her life.

Many feared Haiti’s growing epidemic would overwhelm a capital teeming with more than 1 million people left homeless by January’s earthquake. But, so far, it is the countryside seeing the worst of an epidemic that has killed nearly 1,900 people since erupting less than two months ago.

Rural clinics are overrun by a spectral parade of the sick, straining staff and supplies at medical outposts that could barely handle their needs before the epidemic.

At the three-room clinic near Limbe, in northern Haiti, a handful of doctors and nurses are treating 120 people packed into three rooms.

“It’s really attacking us,” Guy Valcoure, grandfather of the 16-month-old, says of the cholera. He piled on the back of a motorcycle with the baby and her mother to make a 40-minute ride in pre-dawn gloom to reach the clinic.

Holding a plastic cup in case his granddaughter gains enough strength to drink some water, Valcoure watches anxiously as a nurse tries without success to find a vein to give her intravenous fluids. Eventually, a doctor manages to get an IV into the baby’s foot. “She’s going to be OK,” the nurse tells Valcoure.

Not everyone is so fortunate. It was too late to save an old woman carried to the clinic on a door over the weekend, says Dr. Benson Sergiles, a doctor from Cap-Haitien on loan to the clinic. “It’s getting worse by the day,” he says, his eyes bleary from being up all night.

And experts say the disease has not yet reached its peak.

The Health Ministry says there have been more than 80,000 cases since cholera was first detected in late October and the Pan-American Health Organization projects it could sicken 650,000 people over the next six months.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Reporting to the General Assembly on Friday, said that statistics about the epidemic are rough estimates because the cases are concentrated in slums and rural areas with little access to health care.

“Our teams believe the actual number of deaths and current infections may, in fact, be up to twice as high,” he said, adding that Haiti will require hundreds of more doctors, nurses and thousands of community health workers to deal with the outbreak.

A makeshift clinic run by the aid group Doctors Without Borders in Cap-Haitien is seeing 250 patients a day and expects two or three times as many in coming weeks, said Dr. Esther Sterk, a physician from the Netherlands in charge of the treatment center in a crowded gymnasium.

The cases are also rising farther into the countryside, as at the little clinic near Limbe.

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