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Civil defence officials have so far put the death toll from the hurricane itself at 336, although a Reuters tally on Monday put the number as high as 1,000 dead.
In Port Salut, a smashed-up town on Haiti’s southern peninsula that was among those that bore the brunt of Hurricane Matthew – the Caribbean’s most powerful storm in a nearly decade – the town’s sole hospital on Sunday recorded its first cholera death. Another nine patients brought in within the past two days are being treated for the illness, which spreads from contaminated water.
Other cholera deaths have been reported in different parts of southern Haiti.
The outbreak is especially alarming for this destitute tropical nation. In the wake of a catastrophic earthquake in 2010, cholera was inadvertently introduced by UN peacekeepers and went on to kill around 10,000 people.
Dr. Stevenson Desravines, the director of the Port Salut hospital, told AFP that cholera was rapidly becoming a “fatal danger” for the town and surrounding area.
“It’s something that is starting,” he said, adding that his facility lacked personnel, medicine and equipment to tackle that and other health problems.
“Since the storm, we are receiving around 100 patients a day, with 85 percent from storm-related injuries,” mainly broken bones, bleeding and concussions from falling trees, roofs and other objects, he said.
The remainder had other, regular illnesses such as asthma and high blood pressure.
Before the cholera death, the hospital had registered three patients deceased from their injuries sustained last Tuesday when the storm struck with tremendous fury.
The hospital, standing intact on a street of destroyed and damaged houses and fallen trees, has a staff of 55 – a third of them Cuban, who are operating under a years-old cooperation agreement.
One of the Cuban personnel, who declined to be identified because he wasn’t authorised to speak to media, said storm-related injuries were currently the health priority for his team.
There were very few cholera cases right now, relatively, he said.
But after he spoke the cholera death occurred in the hospital, galvanising staff and focusing attention on the new threat.
AFP journalists saw the covered body of the deceased patient in a hospital room, and Desravines confirmed the death was from the disease.
Outside, sheltering in the shade from the bright sun, another cholera-afflicted patient, a weak-looking woman, received fluid intravenously.
Inside and outside the hospital, used soda bottles filled with diluted chlorine hung from handrails, encouraging staff, patients and visitors to regularly disinfect their hands to avoid catching the disease.
A sign pointed those with suspected cholera to use a separate entrance.
Desravines said that so far he had received no help from the United Nations or other aid organisations in the country.
“We are waiting for more personnel, more supplies, including intravenous bags, medicines and cleaning products,” he said.