JAMAICA’S health ministry yesterday placed the nation on a cholera alert in light of a major outbreak of the disease in neighbouring Haiti, which has already left more than 140 dead and about 1,500 hospitalised.
“The ministry is on high alert as we recognise that there may be travel to and from Haiti, especially given its proximity to Jamaica,” said Dr Marion Bullock DuCasse, the ministry’s director of emergency, disaster management and special services.
“We are scaling up all our surveillance and monitoring activities so that we can respond effectively if the need arises,” she said.
Dr Bullock DuCasse has, at the same time, advised that persons postpone non-essential travel to Haiti at this time.
The health ministry said its National Emergency Operations Centre would be carrying out ongoing monitoring, through heightened surveillance at all ports of entry as well as at sentinel sites across the island.
It assured that the island’s laboratory capacity was enough to manage any testing that might be required and that members of its medical teams were being resensitised on how to accurately identify and manage the illnesses, if necessary.
Cholera is an acute, diarrhoeal illness caused by infection of the intestine with the bacterium Vibrio cholera. The illness can sometimes be severe, but persons may also present mild or no symptoms, which usually include fever, diarrhoea, vomiting, abdominal pain and muscle cramps.
It is transmitted when a person drinks water or eat food contaminated with the cholera bacterium.
Diarrhoea and vomiting associated with cholera can lead to rapid loss of body fluids which can cause dehydration and shock. Without adequate treatment, death can occur within hours.
Yesterday, Dr Bullock DuCasse urged persons who may be experiencing any of the symptoms of cholera to seek medical attention immediately. But she made it clear that there were currently no known cases of cholera in Jamaica.
“The country has been without the disease for hundreds of years and has maintained its cholera-free status even as outbreaks continued in other parts of the world,” she said.
“We will continue to maintain our vigilance where this is concerned,” said Dr Bullock DuCasse.
Yesterday, Haitian health officials described the strain of cholera affecting the country as the most deadly and dangerous kind, even as doctors and relief groups scrambled to contain the outbreak.
Health Minister Alex Larsen, who identified contaminated river water as the likely source of the bacteria, said tests by the World Health Organisation confirmed that it is the 01 strain of cholera which is the most deadly and is responsible for most of the outbreaks around the world.
“We are in a sanitary crisis, this is a new woe for the country which has not seen this disease in the past,” Larsen said after a crisis meeting with President Rene Preval.
The outbreak hit the northern part of Haiti, where hospitals were overflowing with some 1,500 new patients as the country still reels from an earthquake in January that killed more than 250,000 people and left another 1.2 million homeless.
The scope of the outbreak has grown rapidly in the past few days but has not yet reached the major displaced persons camps in and around the capital Portau-Prince.
But officials fear the illness could spread quickly in densely populated tent cities that have poor sanitation and meagre medical facilities, with the potential of unleashing a public health disaster.
“We are on maximum alert,” said Claude Surena, head of the Haitian Medical Association. “We must mobilise round-the-clock to help the Government deal with this situation.”
“Sick people continue to arrive and we don’t have room to accept them,” said Raoul Voncent, a doctor at the hospital in the area of Artibonite where the outbreak began.“If this continues we will be overwhelmed.”
The outbreak is being blamed on the cholera-infected Artibonite river, an artery crossing Haiti’s rural centre that thousands of people use for much of their daily activities from washing to cooking. Some local media reports said fatal victims far from medical facilities were buried in makeshift graves.
The Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, said it was also stepping up surveillance in light of the outbreak.
“This is a major threat to the Dominican Republic,” said Health Minister Bautista Rojas Gomez. “We cannot close the border to a bacteria or a virus.”