| Updated at: 0151 PST, Monday, October 25, 2010|
PORT-AU-PRINCE: Haiti's cholera crisis deepened Sunday as the first cases in the capital raised fears the epidemic could infiltrate Port-au-Prince's squalid tent cities and spawn a major health disaster.
More than 250 people have died and thousands have been infected, but those numbers could soar if cholera reached the camps where hundreds of thousands live in awful conditions after being displaced by January's earthquake.
Cholera is primarily passed on through contaminated water or food and could spread like wildfire through the unsanitary tent cities, where displaced families bathe outside, do laundry and share meals in close quarters.
The latest toll of 253 dead and 3,015 infections from top Haitian health official Gabriel Thimote, represented an increase of only 33 fatalities in the last 24 hours -- an indication perhaps that the epidemic could be contained.
The disease "is limited to a well defined perimeter" in the northern region of Artibonite and part of the central plateau, Foreign Minister Marie-Michele Rey told reporters.
Speaking in Switzerland where she was attending a summit of French-speaking nations, Rey said that for the time being "those who are on the spot appear to be able to contain the situation."
The UN Organisation for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs has confirmed that all five people infected in the capital had travelled from the affected Artibonite and central areas.
"These cases thus do not represent a spread of the epidemic because this is not a new location of infection," the UN body said, adding that the development was, however, "worrying."
Regional health director Dieula Louissaint said 12 more people died in the Artibonite department in northern Haiti on Saturday, boosting that area's toll 206, while 14 people died in central Haiti.
Louissaint stressed the need for isolating cholera patients to contain any spread of the disease, which, with its characteristic severe vomiting and diarrhea, can dehydrate and kill in a matter of hours.
"We cannot continue to treat cholera in this structure where we are also seeing other kinds of patients," Louissaint said. "We need to establish specific treatment centers."
Around 3,000 people have been admitted to hospitals and health centers near
the northern city of Saint Marc.
More than 50 inmates at a prison in the center of the country have been infected with cholera, and three inmates have died, officials said.
"The situation is under control. The population should not give in to panic, but people must take hygienic measures seriously," warned Jocelyne Pierre-Louis, a physician with the health ministry.
President Rene Preval and Health Minister Alex Larsen toured regions affected by the epidemic on Saturday, as authorities vowed they were working to provide clean water to residents.
On Friday, the health ministry asked the United Nations operations in Haiti to take charge of distributing medication that is being sent by international donors.
The Canadian government has offered to set up a military hospital on the ground and the United States has pledged to set up large tents to treat patients.
Canada, which has its own sizeable Haitian population, also offered to send one million Canadian dollars to help fight the spread of the outbreak.
"Canada is worried about the risk that this serious disease spreads to other communities," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said.
The US branch of the Red Cross said Saturday that three large shipments of supplies had arrived on Haiti, already considered the poorest country in the western hemisphere even before January's 7.0-magnitude quake.
Large parts of the capital Port-au-Prince and other nearby towns were flattened, a quarter of a million people lost their lives and even more were displaced after losing their homes.
But up until this week, Haiti had at least been spared a major disease outbreak and aid workers are now desperately trying to keep the cholera at bay before it causes a second disaster for the nation in just 10 months.
Doctors Without Borders was setting up a field hospital in Saint Marc to treat patients and Oxfam sent five emergency specialists to Artibonite to set up water, sanitation and hygiene facilities for up to 100,000 people.
Contamination of the Artibonite river, an artery crossing Haiti's rural center that thousands of people use for much of their daily activities, was believed to be the source of the epidemic.