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Cuba struggles to contain second cholera outbreak

AFP-JIJI

Cuba’s second cholera outbreak in four months — after 130 years without the disease — has sickened more than 50 people and killed one in Havana, authorities and the family of the deceased said Tuesday.

The latest outbreak was from the same cholera strain found to have been introduced in Haiti by Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers, unleashing an epidemic in 2010 that has killed more than 7,900 people.

Miriam Rodriguez, who lives in the Havana neighborhood most affected by the outbreak, said her son, Ubaldo Pino, a 46-year-old barber, succumbed to the disease on Jan. 6.

“He died of cholera and that is what is on his death certificate,” she said. The authorities have not officially confirmed the cause of death.

The Health Ministry said the outbreak was detected in Havana, a city of 2.2 million people, on Jan. 6 after a surge in cases of acute diarrhea. It said 51 cholera cases had been confirmed.

The Pedro Kouri Institute of Tropical Medicine traced the disease back to the same strain of cholera that caused last year’s outbreak in the city of Manzanillo, 800 km east of Havana in Granma Province.

That outbreak, which hit in July and was declared eradicated Aug. 28, claimed the lives of three people and infected 417.

It was the first time cholera had been reported on the Caribbean island since 1882.

The Health Ministry said the Havana outbreak “is in a phase of extinction.”

The cholera was “generated by a food vendor, an asymptomatic carrier of the disease, contracted earlier in other regions of the country,” the Health Ministry said.

The latest outbreak first appeared in a working-class district called Cerro situated in the center of Havana, between the Plaza of the Revolution and the city’s main baseball stadium.

Rumors of a cholera outbreak spread in recent days after doctors and nurses began going door to door in certain neighborhoods to distribute medicine.

“They came to all the houses and said, ‘Are you allergic to penicillin?’ And they gave us three Doxycycline pills to take, but wouldn’t tell us anything,” one woman said. “I asked them if it was cholera, and they laughed but didn’t tell us anything.”

Arasay Silva, whose Cerro music shop is next to the usually busy pizzeria El Gran Pizzero, said authorities shut down the restaurant indefinitely.

The Health Ministry called on the public to pay increased attention to hygiene, urging frequent hand washing, the drinking of chlorinated water and careful cleaning and cooking of food.

Preventive measures also were being taken at Havana clinics and schools, according to various sources.

Rodriguez praised the medical attention her son received, but said he had been weakened by alcoholism.

“If he had been a strong person he would have been saved,” said Yanicet Pino, the victim’s sister, who said Pino’s symptoms first emerged on Dec. 22, but he had refused to see a doctor.

The outbreak comes at the height of Cuba’s tourist season, which runs from December to April, when planeloads of travelers from Canada, Europe and Latin America descend on the island.

Nearly 3 million tourists visited Cuba last year.

Cuba was a Spanish colony when the last major cholera epidemic swept the island from 1867 to 1882, leaving nearly 6,000 dead, according to the Medical Sciences Information Center in the western province of Matanzas.