Cholera takes a breather in Haiti, but could surge

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Caused by a bacteria that spreads through contaminated water, the disease so far has sickened more than 194,000 people and killed about 3,890 nationwide. It can lead to a rapid, painful death through complete dehydration, but is easily treatable if caught in time.

In December, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon warned the outbreak could affect as many as 650,000 people over six months, but that seems less likely now. The Pan-American Health Organization still projects cholera will sicken about 400,000 people over a year.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization warned in December that cholera would also worsen hunger in the impoverished nation. Surveys showed workers in the Artibonite, Haiti’s main agriculture zone, were afraid to wade into rice fields and the public was shunning the region’s produce, causing steep price drops in the local street markets. Jackson Dorgil, an FAO agricultural technician in the area, said prices for staple crops such as onions, tomatoes and melons plummeted _ and much couldn’t be sold at all.

But that too seems to have improved. At the region’s main market in Pont-Sonde on Saturday, prices and sales were back to normal, with hundreds of women selling produce, fish and other products in neat little pyramids spread over burlap sacks. “Life is starting to be normal again,” Dorgil said during a tour of the region.

Rice fields there were filled with barefoot workers up to their ankles in muddy water believed to be contaminated with the cholera bacteria, planting the crop under a blistering sun. Most earn about $2.50 for a six-hour workday.

Fresnel Louis, the president of a worker’s association in the area, said radio commentators were warning people not to go into the water at the start of the outbreak, but there were few options.

“If you tell people in the Artibonite not to touch the water, you are telling them not to work _ because that’s what we have here,” Louis said.

Those rice fields could lead to a resurgence of the disease. There were no latrines in sight, nor any supplies of potable water _ the same conditions that helped spread cholera so rapidly in the first place.

Zannini said any immunity typically lasts six to eight weeks, so people will be prone to catching it again when the rainy season starts in the spring, sending the bacteria coursing through rivers and streams.

“Lack of immunization, lack of access to clean water and a difficult hygienic situation still keep the population exposed to a new outbreak,” he said.

(This version CORRECTS Adds possible reasons for improvement; corrects grammar in 4th paragraph.)

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