Posted on Saturday, 12.08.12
Life on the island
Cuba stays silent about deadly cholera outbreak
It's the disease that the government doesn't acknowledge, because it
might deter tourists from coming to the island.
By Juan O. Tamayo
Cuban dissident Walter Clavel says that when he took his 2-year-old son
to a hospital Wednesday with a case of diarrhea, the boy was tested for
a sometimes fatal disease that the government is stubbornly refusing to
acknowledge — cholera.
Nurses told him the test was negative, and the boy was not quarantined
in the three wards reserved for cholera patients at the North Pediatric
Hospital in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, Clavel said.
Cuba, especially the eastern third of the island, is suffering through
an alarming outbreak of cholera — as well as the mosquito-borne dengue
fever — brewed in its decrepit water and sewer systems and fueled by
Hurricane Sandy's floods, according to residents.
More than a dozen deaths have been reliably reported. Hospitals and
prisons have been quarantined at times. Schools have been shut down, and
so have restaurants and street kiosks selling juices and other products
made with water.
Government buildings have established hand and shoe disinfection stands
at their entrances. Some public health officials have gone door to door
asking if anyone is suffering from diarrhea, vomiting or fevers, and
others distributed water purification tablets.
Cuba's government has said nothing publicly about cholera since Aug. 28,
when it announced that an outbreak in the eastern city of Manzanillo —
the first in a century — had ended after three deaths and 417 confirmed
Spread by bacteria that cause severe diarrhea and vomiting, the disease
killed millions in the Middle Ages.
Police in uniform and plainclothes stationed at hospitals are telling
visitors to keep quiet about cholera and other diseases, Clavel told El
Nuevo Herald — apparently to avoid upsetting the Caribbean island's $2.5
billion-a-year tourism industry.
"We have to question whether the Cuban government today prioritizes
their need for tourism … more than local public health demands," wrote
Sherri Porcelain, a public health expert at the University of Miami and
researcher at its Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies.
Worst hit by the cholera has been eastern Cuba, where Sandy came ashore
last month halfway between Manzanillo and Santiago, the island's
second-largest city and capital of a province with the same name.
It damaged water, electricity and sewer systems, flooded latrines and
left behind puddles where dengue-carrying mosquitoes easily bred.
"There is tremendous worry in Santiago," said Clavel, one of a dozen
Cubans contacted for this story. Many were dissidents, unafraid to talk
about the epidemics. Their versions coincided in many ways, but could
not be individually confirmed.
In the only independent report, a Nov. 2 announcement by the Pan
American Health Organization in Washington, a branch of the U.N.'s World
Health Organization, noted that "suspected cholera cases detected in
several areas of the country continue to be investigated."
Two Cubans said the cholera spread rapidly in Sandy's wake in part
because infected inmates at the Mar Verde prison were transferred to the
Boniato prison, both in Santiago province, and later to another prison
in the neighboring province of Camaguey.
Mar Verde was quarantined as of Monday, said city of Santiago dissident
Eunices Madaula. More than 100 cholera cases were reportedly being
treated at the Boniato prison's infirmary and 80 more at the nearby
Ambrosio Grillo Hospital.
Hospital staffers hung up on El Nuevo Herald phone calls last week to
ask about the cholera cases. But Miami-based Radio/TV Martí reported
that when it called recently, a nurse answered, "You're asking if we
have cholera? All the wards are full!"
Havana dissident Dania Virgen García, who stays in contact with
political prisoners throughout the island, said cholera is spreading
prison to prison because of their notoriously bad hygiene. García added
that she had received several reports that some prisoners died from
cholera but were counted among Sandy's 11 Cuban fatalities.
Santiago dissident Pedro Montané said he spoke last week with several
people who confirmed to him in private that their relatives were being
treated for cholera at the 28th of September Clinic, but did not want to
give their names.
The government jailed the doctor who first reported a dengue epidemic in
2000 for more than a year, and is now holding Calixto Ramón Martínez
Arias, the independent journalist who first reported the cholera
outbreak in Manzanillo.
And Santiago blogger Janis Hernandez wrote that several young children
playing on a sidewalk recently were chanting, "Cholera's going around,
cholera's going around … I am going to inject you. Better wash your hands."
Scores of other cases were reported in Guantánamo, Ciego de Avila,
Yateras, Baracoa, Maisí, Palma Soriano, San Luis, Palmarito de Cauto,
Songo-La Maya, Sagua de Tánamo and Antilla. Guantánamo's Agostinho Neto
Provincial Hospital alone saw 80 suspected cases, said one resident who
asked for anonymity.
Smaller numbers of cholera cases were reported in western Cuba and
Havana. But the capital is suffering through an outbreak of dengue, also
known as Breakbone Fever. A 1981 epidemic killed 158 Cubans and affected
So many dengue cases are now jamming Havana hospitals that long-running
shortages of medicines, needles, bandages, chlorine, soap and other
supplies are turning into emergencies, according to several recent
What's more, Cuba's water and sewer systems are so deteriorated after
decades of little or no maintenance that experts say it will be
impossible to stop future outbreaks of contagious diseases like cholera
More than half the water pumped through the country's pipes never
reaches its destination because of breaks and waste, Cuban television
reported in June. Pipes with low or no water pressure can be
contaminated by bacteria or critters.
The country of 11.2 million people has only 3,300 miles of sewer lines
and eight waste treatment plants, according to a July report by the
National Institute for Hydraulic Resources to the legislative National
Assembly of People's Power.
A study conducted by researchers at the U.S. Agency for International
Development in 2007 showed only 65 percent of the population had access
to piped drinking water, and that sewage services reach only 38 percent
of the people.
Even in Havana, more than 100,000 residents were receiving potable water
by truck in April 2011 because of breaks in the pipes and a drought,
according to an article in the Granma newspaper, official voice of the
Montané said his tap water in Santiago often runs the color of
chocolate, and Madaula said poor parts of the city still have no water
because of Sandy's disruptions. Most suburban and nearby farms have
latrines and water wells, she added.
Santiago's small waste treatment plant can handle only 45 percent of the
flow and is often down altogether. The rest goes directly into the bay,
said Manuel Cereijo, an electrical and computer engineering professor at
the University of Miami.
With such tattered infrastructure, and with the government lacking the
money to fix it, infectious diseases likely will continue to hit the
island, said Julio Cesar Alfonso, a Cuban-trained Miami doctor who keeps
in touch with physicians on the island.
"It is very probable that in coming years cholera will remain in Cuba as
an endemic disease … as part of the island's suffering.""