Cholera in Cuba

Frank Calzon in Americas Quarterly:

Cuba and Cholera: Good Hygiene and Good Government Can Save Lives

Almost five months ago, the Cuban government announced the end of a cholera outbreak in eastern Cuba. At the time, Cuba’s Public Health Ministry blamed the three deaths and 417 cases on overflowing toilets, heavy rains and contaminated wells. According to the government, thanks to its prompt reaction and the quality of the country’s public health system, the crisis ended quickly.Just recently, on January 15, the Cuban government announced that there were “only” 51 new cases—this time in Havana.

International and independent media on the island had already reported the outbreak, with independent media doing so months ago. On January 13, the BBC reported a “cholera fear in Cuba as officials keep silent.” Likely prompted by the international attention, the next day the government published an Information Notice to the Population saying it had detected “an increase in serious diarrhea…with symptoms that lead to the suspicion of cholera.”

Lest anyone become concerned, however, the government stated in the notice that it had everything under control and an “anti-cholera plan…was immediately activated” in which the government has “all the means and resources needed.” The Information Notice offered no additional details other than to say that “due to the measures already taken, the outbreak is on its way to extinction.”

International news reports, however, belied the Cuban government’s claims. The January 13 BBC story reported that one known death had occurred “in one of the poorer and more overcrowded districts of Cuba’s capital” and that “there are increasing signs” of more cases. “Suspected cases are being sent to the Tropical Medicine Institute…All our wards are dealing with this issue—they are almost full,” an Institute employee told the BBC.

As a result of their own independent assessments, both the British Embassy and the American mission in Havana issued travel advisories earlier this week, and other embassies told the Associated Press that they were considering doing the same.

The diplomats told AP they “have been concerned that the government is not sharing information with them in a timely manner”

An AP report that appeared in The Miami Herald on January 15 explained that “Cholera is a waterborne disease caused by a bacteria found in tainted water or food. It can kill within hours” and said that “it was unclear why a new outbreak was being seen in Havana. Rains, which can help spread the disease, are common in January, but the weather has been unusually dry this year.”

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