Cholera in Cuba
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Cholera fear in Cuba as officials keep silent

13 January 2013 Last updated at 08:10 GMT

Cholera fear in Cuba as officials keep silent

By Sarah Rainsford BBC News, Havana

Uvaldo Pino was a neighbourhood barber in Cerro, one of the poorer and

more overcrowded districts of Cuba's capital, Havana.

In late December, the 46-year-old fell sick with vomiting and diarrhoea

and died in hospital on 6 January.

The barber's family say he had two separate tests and both came back

positive – for cholera.

"We don't know how he was infected," his sister, Yanisey Pino, told the

BBC at the family's home, a few blocks from the capital's Revolution Square.

"He was treated, he had all the medicine, but his organs didn't respond.

It was too late."

Yanisey added that her brother was a heavy drinker and had checked

himself out of hospital the first time he was admitted.

A week after Uvaldo's death, Cuba's health ministry has not yet made any

public pronouncement. But there are increasing signs that the barber's

case is not an isolated one.

'Dozens' of admissions

Doctors are now making door-to-door enquiries in Havana and anyone

displaying possible cholera symptoms is being tested. Suspected cases

are being sent to the Tropical Medicine Institute, the IPK.

"All our wards are dealing with this issue – they are almost full," an

IPK employee told the BBC by telephone, before saying she was not

authorised to comment further.

Another staff member, contacted later and also not authorised to speak

to the media, said the IPK did not have any confirmed cases of cholera

at this point.

But Yanisey Pino says her brother was diagnosed with cholera both by his

local hospital and the IPK.

The day Uvaldo died, health workers visited the family where they live –

in several cramped houses around a small yard. Relatives and neighbours

were issued antibiotics as a precaution.

The area has been disinfected and water samples were taken for testing.

Meanwhile, nearby bars and cafeterias have been closed or instructed not

to sell food or drink that is not pre-packed.

Elsewhere in the neighbourhood, there are similar scenes.

One resident, Yudermis, fell sick just before the New Year, along with

four other relatives including her seven-year-old son. The family

assumed they had food poisoning but Yudermis says her cousin then tested

positive for cholera at their local clinic.

"The health workers then came here asking questions, like if we had

diarrhoea," she explains inside their rundown family home as her son,

now fully recovered, plays nearby.

"They sent us all to hospital by ambulance and the tests came back positive.

"There were a lot of people at the IPK," Yudermis adds, describing

dozens of admissions while she was being treated, and not all from her

own district of Cerro.

"I was in a bad way. It was frightening. But we're fine now."

Before she fell sick, Yudermis had never even heard of cholera, which is

rare in Cuba.

Cold grills

The World Health Organisation (WHO) describes cholera as "extremely

virulent". Carried by contaminated water or food, it causes severe

dehydration through diarrhoea and can prove fatal if untreated.

Until last summer, there had been no significant outbreak on the island

since well before the revolution.

But in July the health ministry confirmed that three people had died of

cholera in the east of the country. A contaminated well was identified

as the source.

In Havana, Cuba's bustling and crowded capital and a key tourist centre,

strict measures are in place to contain the latest suspected outbreak.

"We can't sell anything that's not in sealed bottles until further

notice and all food sales have been suspended," explains Tony, at the

Cerro Moderno cafe, a short walk from the home of Yudermis. Its fridge

is now empty and the grills cold.

Local doctors confirmed this is standard procedure for several blocks

around every location where someone tests positive for cholera.

"If they take all the right measures, we'll be fine," Tony shrugs,

adding that everyone has been given antibiotics as a precaution.

"I took my pills straight away!" says Angel, as he buys cigarettes at

the cafe.

"I don't know what cholera is and I don't want to find out. People here

are using chlorine and boiling their water. You have to take care."

Rumour mill

Pharmacies across the city are now selling water purification drops,

rationed to two small bottles per person.

But in the tourist heart of Old Havana, cafes and restaurants remain

open and the streets are still full of mobile food and drink vendors.

Most say they have heard rumours of a cholera outbreak in Cerro and are

taking extra precautions, but none have received any official instructions.

The WHO stresses "public communication" as a key tool in controlling any

cholera outbreak.

In Havana, that task has so far been left to local doctors who are very

connected to their communities.

But as rumours fill the information void, concern on the streets is growing.

"I'm racking my brains trying to understand why there's nothing on TV

about this," says Yanisey Pino, echoing many peoples' comments.

"Why don't they say something? Inform people, like in other countries,

so they're not afraid and can protect themselves! But there's no

information at all."

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