|The cholera outbreak originating in the central Artibonite region of Haiti has killed at least 273 people [AFP]
The rate of deaths from Haiti's cholera outbreak appears to be stabilising, according to health officials in the country, even as large numbers of people continue to fall ill with the disease.
The country's health ministry said on Tuesday that the recent spread of cholera had killed at least 284 people and made nearly 3,769 others ill in the Caribbean nation.
Al Jazeera's correspondent Sebastian Walker, who visited Artibonite, the province where the outbreak is centred, said the figure for the number of deaths is only for the Artibonite region and the figure for total cases is for the Artibonite region and Central region only.
As a result, Walker said the actual total cases could be significantly higher.
Our correspondent said clinic workers in Artibonite said they have seen the illness rate stay the same.
Ian Rawson, the director of a provincial clinic, said he sees 20 to 25 new patients a day.
"This is what's seen in populations that don't have previous immunity," Eric Mintz, a worker for the US Centers for Disease Control, said.
"So in countries in Asia where cholera is an occurrence every year, people do develop immunity after repeated exposures and they are much less likely to get severely dehydrated".
The announcement by Haitian health officials on Saturday that five cholera cases had been confirmed in the capital Port-au-Prince stoked fears that the disease could spread rapidly among hundreds of thousands of survivors of the January 12 earthquake who are sheltered in camps there.
But since then, UN and Haitian officials have expressed confidence that they might have the disease under control, at least preventing it from exacting a much higher death toll.
Yet Haitians that live in rural areas still have extremely poor access to clean water.
Our correspondent spoke with people using a well located right next to the Saint-Marc River, which the UN has said is contaminated with cholera.
"This water behind me, we drink it, we wash our clothes with it, we cook with it; our water safety situation here is a catastrophe," Renel Consonde, a resident, said.
Al Jazeera's Craig Mauro, reporting from Port-au-Prince's National Hospital, said many residents said they were not even aware of the cholera outbreak.
One doctor specialising in infectious diseases told our correspondent that he believed the health system could control an outbreak in the city, but that the hospital had only 20 beds set aside for serious cases.
The first cases confirmed in Port-au-Prince since the epidemic started were people who had become infected in Artibonite, UN officials told Al Jazeera, citing the Haitian ministry of health.
The five had subsequently travelled to the capital, where they fell ill and are now being treated.
"These cases thus do not represent a spread of the epidemic because this is not a new location of infection," the UN's Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs said.
Public health campaign
Nine months on from the earthquake, 1.3 million people still living in tent camp with no municipal services, health clinics or schools. Mauro reported that the UN's intention is that the camps don't become permanent, yet with only half the people living in the camps, the situation is increasingly strained.
A public health campaign is underway to educate people to boil water, and authorities are looking to solutions such as piping in the water or disinfecting it with chlorine.
"There's a great public education campaign underway right now to try to explain to ordinary Haitians how to prevent the disease," Mauro said.
But boiling water requires precious charcoal.
"Here, that's an additional expense for people who already have nothing," he said.
Death toll warning
Officials have warned that the death toll could rise as they reach hard-to-access areas.
Al Jazeera first discovered on Saturday that two suspected cholera patients were being treated at the National Hospital.
|Though the death rate has slowed, nearly 4,000 people are now sick [AFP]
Al Jazeera's Walker tracked one patient to a poor neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince.
Rosalind Alsaintdor, the patient, said she had been suffering from acute diarrhoea and was told by doctors she would receive the result of her cholera test on Monday.
Our correspondent said the main priority for health officials now is containing the disease.
"The main focus is on the IDP (internally displaced person) camps," Walker said.
"You have 1.3 million people living in very squalid conditions, conditions in which health officials have told us are breeding grounds for disease - very poor levels of sanitation, almost no drinking water."
Another problem in the camps is a lack of clean drinking water. Residents told Al Jazeera the water delivered routinely by the Red Cross in tankers makes them sick.
If the disease spreads into camps where those left homeless by the January earthquake are sheltering, a public health crisis could be imminent.
More than 250,000 people were killed in the earthquake and another 1.2 million left homeless.
"It will be very, very dangerous," Claude Surena, president of the Haitian Medical Association, said.
"Port-au-Prince already has more than 2.4 million people, and the way they are living is dangerous enough already. Clearly a lot more needs to be done.''
Source: Al Jazeera and Agencies