PORT-AU-PRINCE — An epidemic of cholera that has ravaged northern and central Haiti killing 220 people has reached the country's densely populated capital, according to UN health officials.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) said in a statement late Saturday that the Haitian Public Health Ministry's "national reference laboratory today confirmed cases in Ouest Department, including Port-au-Prince."
No specific number of cholera cases in Port-au-Prince was given.
The sudden cholera epidemic, mainly in northern Haiti, has sent officials scrambling to contain a wider outbreak 10 months after an earthquake devastated the Caribbean nation.
Hundreds of thousands of people are still living in impoverished tent cities, particularly around Port-au-Prince, where sanitation is poor and where relief groups say the diarrhea-causing illness could spread rapidly.
The PAHO said that while no cases of cholera have been reported in the neighboring Dominican Republican, the outbreak has prompted the Haitian government "to mobilize a contingency plan in the border area, while the border remains open."
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.
"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 which is struggling to cope with the overwhelming rush of sick patients as Haiti grapples with its first cholera outbreak in over a century.
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 in Haiti and the United States has pledged to set up large tents to treat patients on the ground.
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 in the Americas' poorest country.
Doctors Without Borders has plans to set up a field hospital in Saint Marc to treat cholera patients, and Oxfam said it sent five emergency specialists to Artibonite to "set up water, sanitation and hygiene programs for an estimated 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 from washing to cooking, was believed to be at the source of the epidemic.
But the rapid spread of the disease, which is caused by a bacterial infection in the small intestines, raised fears of a much larger health emergency.
"It is a scenario of catastrophe," Mirlande Manigat, the frontrunner in Haiti's presidential elections, told broadcaster Radio-Canada during a visit to Montreal.
Aid agencies have 300,000 doses of antibiotics in the country already, Catherine Bragg, the UN deputy emergency coordinator said in New York on Friday.
Some 10,000 boxes of water purification tablets, 2,500 jerry cans, and the same number of buckets and hygiene kits are being distributed in the affected area.
"The point here is that cholera deaths are preventable, and we are doing everything we can to assist the Haitian authorities to prevent further deaths," Bragg said.