The U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana has issued an alert for cholera, triggering fresh allegations that Havana is hushing up an outbreak of the potentially fatal disease to avoid damaging its $2.5 billion-a-year tourism industry.
Officials at the Florida Department of Health said Wednesday that they have received no reports of cholera imported from the island — although tens of thousands of Cuban-Americans visited there during this summer’s vacation period.
Cuba’s government has said almost nothing in public about the recent cases of cholera, which causes intense diarrhea that can lead to dehydration and death. The state-controlled news media has referred only to “acute diarrheic diseases.”
“Of course nobody wants to say they have outbreaks because outbreaks cause a decline in tourism,” said Sherri Porcelain, a senior lecturer in global public health in world affairs at the University of Miami who has been tracking the cholera outbreak in Cuba.
But Havana will find it difficult to avoid all the negative publicity this month: the U.S. warning, reports of five cases in people who flew from Cuba to Venezuela, Chile and Italy, and a report by the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
The statement from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana urged U.S. citizens living in or visiting Cuba to follow public health recommendations, such as frequent hand washing and special care with food and water to be consumed.
“Media reports have indicated that cases of cholera have been identified in the city of Havana, possibly linked to a reported outbreak of cholera in eastern Cuba,” said the statement dated Tuesday and posted on the mission’s Web page Wednesday.
The statement gave no further details on the cases, although independent journalists on the island have been reporting scores of cases over the past year and especially this summer, when high temperatures and rains appear to have helped spread the disease.
PAHO, the regional arm of the World Health Organization, reported that Venezuela confirmed on Aug. 9 two cases of cholera in travelers who arrived from Cuba, and that Italy reported one more, a man who arrived from Havana on July 13.
Chile reported another two arrivals from Cuba with cholera, PAHO added. The airport in Santiago later declared a state of “epidemiological vigilance” on Cuban arrivals, according to news reports. And Canada issued an advisory to travelers heading to Cuba.
The PAHO report also noted that 51 cases were detected in Havana early this year “related to the handling of food,” and 47 more were reported in the eastern provinces of Camagüey, Guantánamo and Santiago de Cuba in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.
Cuba’s government never commented publicly on those two outbreaks, although independent journalists reported on them as well as others in Matanzas, Jovellanos, Cardenas, Sierra de Cubitas, Cabaiguan, Jagüey Grande and elsewhere.
Cholera can be treated with hydration and antibiotics, but can spread so quickly and be so deadly that it is on a worldwide list of reportable diseases that also includes the bubonic plague, typhoid and yellow fever.
The disease is thought to have been brought to Cuba by medical personnel who served in Haiti, where cholera has killed more than 8,200 since 2010. Havana has confirmed only three deaths in Cuba, all from the initial outbreak in the eastern cities of Bayamo and Manzanillo. Dissidents put that death toll at more than 15.