HURRICANE MITCH: Honduras prepares for wave of cholera

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The Independent Online
BRACING FOR an expected cholera epidemic after Hurricane Mitch's devastation, the head of Honduras' biggest hospital last night issued a heart-rending appeal for more international aid. "We're desperate. We need aid urgently. We need water. We need food," said Dr Carlos Huezo, director of La Escuela public hospital.

Speaking to The Independent in his hospital office, Dr Huezo said food and medicine arriving so far had gone to the worst-hit northern and southern areas of the country and his hospital had received nothing. After the normal incubation period, the first cases of cholera and other lethal diseases were likely to appear any day now with the hospital facing wartime- like conditions, he said.

"The worst is yet to come. We have a cholera ward ready and quarantined when the first cases come. We know that people are consuming contaminated food and water from rivers still clogged with bodies. We appeal to your country to send us what we most need. We need vaccines, we need antibiotics. We need [intravenous] fluids, dermatological cream, medicine for respiratory problems including asthma.

"All these ailments are increasing as time goes by. We have food for only one week. We get our water from a well that could run dry any day. We are rationing it."

Up to 5,000 people have been visiting the hospital daily since Mitch. Most have regular ailments. "We'd have far more if there were any public transport and no curfew," the hospital chief said. Tegucigalpa is sill under a "state of exception", equivalent to a state of emergency, with 9pm to 5am curfew and a ban on alcohol.

Dr Huezo said a "worrying" outbreak of Hepatitis A had been reported in the Bay Islands off Honduras' northern coast, hit dead centre by Hurricane Mitch two weeks ago. There was a second outbreak in Valle de Angeles, a town close to the capital but cut off because of storm-ruptured roads and bridges.

"Cholera is almost certain. We hope will be able to keep it contained," he said. "If not, I don't want to imagine the consequences with the lack of facilities we face."

Doctors at the 1,300-bed La Escuela said they had heard profiteers had been fishing bloated cows' cadavers from the Choluteca river that runs through Tegucigalpa, marinating it and selling it as fresh beef.

"Please tell your countrymen we need sheets, disposable surgery robes, clothes and other items because we simply don't have the water to wash," Dr Huezo said.

The Ministry of Public Health has launched a campaign telling people not to drink or wash in the city's rivers, some of them stagnant after being blocked by debris. "People are desperate. Virtually no one in the capital has running water at home," Dr Huezo said. "So they're using the river for their washing, as a toilet, some are even drinking it because it's all they have."