Rene Preval, Haiti's president, has confirmed that 138 people in his country have been killed in a cholera outbreak.
"I can confirm it is cholera," Preval told Reuters news agency on Friday.
He said the government was taking measures to try to stop the disease spreading.
More than 1,500 people have been rushed to hospital with severe diarrhoea, vomiting and dehydration in the last few days. Medical
facilities in the port city of Saint Marc have been overwhelmed, with
hundreds of patients laying on blankets in a car park outside St
Nicholas hospital with drips in their arms for rehydration.
Al Jazeera's Sebastian Walker,
reporting from outside a hospital where about 1,400 people were seeking
treatment, described the scene as "absolutely horrific".
"There was total chaos," he said.
"There were streams of patients arriving all the time being driven in
from remote villages in the region, with severe cases of
dehydration, acute diarrhoea and vomiting.
"We're hearing of cases all around the region we are in now. It's a
rural region, the farming heartland of Haiti. There is a lot of poverty,
high rates of unemployment, and there is very little drinking water
Al Jazeera's Walker said the
authorities' priority was to prevent the disease from spreading into
camps where thousands of people left homeless by January's devastating
earthquake are sheltering.
More than 250,000 people were killed in the earthquake and another 1.2 million were left homeless.
The Lower Artibonite region, where the outbreak is centred, did not
experience significant damage in the quake but has absorbed thousands of
refugees from the capital Port-au-Prince, 70km south of Saint Marc.
Aid groups have voiced concern for months that any outbreak of disease
could spread rapidly in the country due to the unsanitary conditions in
the makeshift camps housing the homeless, with little access to clean
Imogen Wall of the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian
Affairs said the UN's priority was to provide basic sanitation to help
people get rehydrated.
"We're going to need a large public information aspect to this as
well, to make sure people understand what they can do to protect
themselves," she said. "That's going to be absolutely vital."
Victims ranged in age, but officials said the young and the elderly appeared to be the most affected.
The worst-affected areas were Douin, Marchand Dessalines and zones
around Saint-Marc in the Artibonite region, according to government
Gregory Hartl, a spokesman for the World Health Organisation, said it
was not yet clear how widely the outbreak has spread and could spread.
"It's impossible to predict with any certainty that it will spread," he told Al Jazeera.
"We do know however that poor sanitation, poor infrastructure in
terms of water provision, is one of the main ways that cholera does
spread. Normally it spreads when feces gets back into the water system
and people are forced to use water which hasn't been cleaned.
"Cholera has not been seen in Haiti for a long time, for about a
century actually, so there is not a lot of experience on the part of the
population and on the part of the the medical community within Haiti on
how to treat this. So this is a big challenge in a number of ways."
Relief organisations were mobilising to ship medicine, water
filtration units and other relief supplies to the Artibonite region.
"We have been afraid of this since the earthquake," Robin Mahfood,
the president of Food for the Poor, said while the group was preparing
to airlift donations of antibiotics, oral dehydration salts and other
The outbreak is being blamed on the Artibonite river, an artery
crossing Haiti's rural centre that thousands of people use for much of
their daily activities from washing to cooking.
Charles Henry Baker, a presidential candidate, travelled to the stricken area and pleaded for help.
"The situation is terrible. Inside the hospital, they're overcrowded. They're not overcrowded, it's beyond overcrowded," he said.
"They need some field hospitals put up as quickly as possible to be able to take in the amount of people
they have. They need doctors. They need nurses. People are all over, on
the floor, the way it was after the 12th of January [earth quake]. We
need help; we need quick help."
Cholera is transmitted by water but also by food that has been in contact with unclean water contaminated by cholera bacteria.
It causes serious diarrhoea and vomiting, leading to dehydration. The
disease is easily treatable by rehydration and antibiotics, but with a
short incubation period, it can be fatal if not treated in time.
The World Health Organisation defines cholera as "an extremely
virulent disease. It affects both children and adults and can kill
The impoverished Caribbean nation has also been hit in recent days by
severe flooding, adding to the misery of those struggling to survive in
the scores of tent cities now dotting the country.
Reconstruction has barely begun despite billions of dollars pledged for Haiti in the wake of the disaster. Less than 15 per cent of money promised at a UN donor's conference in March has been delivered.