Here in the US everyone is talking about the flu epidemic.
In Cuba the concern is over cholera.
Cuban officials Tuesday confirmed an outbreak in Havana.
They say 51 people have been infected in the capital.
Cholera is a bacterial infection that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration and in some cases death.
“Every time there’s a confirmed case doctors are going around, giving preventative antibiotics to people in neighborhood,” says the BBC’s Sarah Rainsford, who is in Havana.
Rainsford also says the government is closing down “bars and cafes unless they sell sealed bottles and cans or pre-packed food.”
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Marco Werman: On this side of the Atlantic, disease outbreaks are in the news. Here in the U.S., everyone’s talking about the flu epidemic. In Cuba, the concern is over cholera. Cuban officials today confirmed an outbreak in Havana. They say 51 people have been infected in the capital. Cholera is a bacterial infection that can cause severe diarrhea, dehydration, and, in some cases death. The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford is in Havana, and the Cuban government, Sarah, had been denying there was this cholera outbreak, in Havana, and apparently the first case was detected January 6. Why did it take the government so long to actually admit there was an outbreak?
Sarah Rainsford: They hadn’t actually denied there was a cholera outbreak, but what they hadn’t done was give any concrete information on exactly what was going on, and they’d left it to the rumor mill to do its work. There’d been weeks of rumors here in Havana on the streets of a cholera outbreak. Just last Friday, I called the main hospital which I had been told was dealing with the cases. And one person there, who wasn’t authorized to speak officially, but one person there told me that the hospital wards were all dealing with cholera cases, or suspected cholera cases, and said that they were almost all full. And when I called back, another woman told me that there’d been no confirmed cases. So, there was an awful lot of confusion. And given that this is a disease which the World Health Organization and all sorts of international bodies say is crucial that there’s a lot of public information about it to prevent its spread, there was a huge lack of official information about it until now.
Werman: Well, you yourself reported on possible cholera cases ahead of the government announcement today. Do you think your reporting helped put pressure on the government to admit there was an outbreak?
Rainsford: I think certainly we’ve been asking for information, asking for official confirmation from the Health Ministry, and getting nothing. What has been happening on the ground is that family doctors have been going door to door and have been checking for symptoms of cholera in their neighborhoods. There are a huge number of doctors in Cuba and they’re very well informed about the patients that live in, that they’re responsible for in their particular neighborhood. And, so, in this case, we knew that doctors had been asking about people with sickness and diarrhea, and had been referring them to the main hospitals here for tests. And, I had spoken to one family, a family of five, including a boy of seven, who’d all been sent to hospital and had tested positive for cholera, they were all fine and well, they were back at home a week later, but the government was still not confirming that there was an outbreak. So, whilst doctors on the ground were doing their work, the Health Ministry was saying nothing. And I also spoke to the sister of a man who died on January the 6th, which was when this outbreak, we now understand, was first detected. She told me that the doctors told her that he had cholera. He had had two tests for cholera and both came back positive, so, as far as I understand, there is one death in this cholera outbreak, although still the Health Ministry is not confirming that officially.
Werman: Now, those Cuban doctors on the ground presumably helped to trace this outbreak to a food vendor, who caught it in the East of the country. Is this outbreak in Havana connected to a previous outbreak in Cuba?
Rainsford: It does appear to be, and I think perhaps the reason the information is so slow in coming out is that the government, like happened in a previous outbreak last summer in the East of the island, the government likes to wait until it has the situation entirely under control before it actually tells people what’s going on. In a case like cholera, what’s absolutely crucial is public information, the public needs to know what’s going on, they need to know what measures to take to protect themselves, washing their hands, making sure that food is properly cleaned and prepared, and using, perhaps, purifying solutions in their water to make sure that they’re protected. Here in Cuba, the family doctors were doing that in the particularly effected neighborhoods, but the whole country, the whole of the city, and don’t forget how many tourists come to Havana, they knew nothing about it.
Werman: So, what are the officials, what are officials in Cuba doing to keep the epidemic contained? Does it start with just getting information out?
Rainsford: Well, I think that’s obviously a crucial part of it, and finally that’s happened now. Every time there’s a confirmed case, doctors are going ’round, they’re giving preventative antibiotics to people, a course of antibiotics to everyone who lives nearby in the neighborhood, and they’re also closing down bars and cafes, and saying that unless they sell sealed bottles of drink, or sealed cans, or pre-packed food, then they’re not allowed to sell food and drink on the streets anymore. So, fairly strict measures in place. I understand that the bus station here, you’re also having to have your shoes disinfected as you come in and out of the bus station. So, a lot of measures in place now, and I think crucially, finally, the information out there too.
Werman: The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford, in Havana. Thanks a lot.
Rainsford: Thank you.
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