The first cholera outbreak in Cuba in a century has left at least 15 dead and sent hundreds to hospitals all but sealed off by security agents bent on keeping a lid on the news, according to reports Friday.
“There are 1,000-plus cases” in the southeastern province of Granma, said Yoandris Montoya, who lives in Bayamo, the provincial capital.
Security agents have locked down the city’s hospital, he added, but staff told him the situation inside is “chaotic.”
Santiago Marquez, a physician in the neighboring town of Manzanillo, said there is “a lot of panic” in the region because of the lack of official information about the intestinal disease.
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Cuba’s Public Health Ministry, which rarely makes public any information that could give the island a negative image, declared Tuesday it had “controlled” an outbreak of cholera that had killed three people and affected 50 others in Granma province.
But unofficial reports from the region Friday indicated the disease was continuing to spread, with hundreds more suspected cases jamming hospitals in Manzanillo and Bayamo. Montoya said more cases were reported in nearby Niquero and Pilón.
As of Friday, the outbreak had killed at least 15 people and affected hundreds more, Havana independent journalist Calixto R. Martinez wrote in a report for the Miami-based blog Café Fuerte, or Strong Coffee.
Cholera was reported to have been eradicated in Cuba in the late 19th or early 20th century, although it has killed more than 7,400 people and sickened 574,000 in Haiti, just east of Cuba. Scores of Cuban medical personnel work in Haiti.
Cuba’s once-vaunted public health system has slipped significantly since the end of Moscow’s massive subsidies in the early 1990s. During one 24-hour period in January, three flights from Cuba to Toronto arrived with groups of passengers suffering from nausea, vomiting and fever.
Manzanillo human rights activist Tania de la Torre, the wife of Marquez, said residents were boiling their water but could not wash their hands as often as they wished because the city of about 130,000 people has an acute soap shortage.
Calls from El Nuevo Herald to the Celia Sánchez Manduley Hospital in Manzanillo, the biggest health institution in the region, were answered by women who said they were not authorized to comment.
Martínez told El Nuevo Herald that he had gathered his information from residents and health workers in the region. Some of them called him from public phones because police and state security agents are trying to block reports on the cholera outbreak, he added.
A Manzanillo man named Enrique Piñeiro told him the death toll had surpassed 16, said Martinez, a member of the independent news agency Hablemos Press. Another man who claimed to have a relative working in a regional hospital put the death toll at 15, he added.
The journalist also wrote that Piñeiro and a hospital employee reported that doctors are signing death certificates saying that the victims died from “acute respiratory insufficiency” rather than cholera.
“We have been forbidden from using the word cholera, and there have been people arrested and detained temporarily in stations of the PNR,” the National Revolutionary Police, Piñeiro was quoted as saying. The provincial newspaper, La Demajagua, and radio stations have reported nothing on the outbreak.
Havana residents said there have been unconfirmed reports of cholera in the capital, especially near José Martí International Airport, as well as rumors of an increase in dengue, a disease transmitted by mosquitoes that thrive during the hot and rainy months of summer.
Spanish tourism companies operating in Cuba meanwhile noted that they have not been affected by the outbreak and that Granma province is far from the main tourist areas in Havana and the beaches along the northern coast.
“Everything is under control,” declared the Cuba director for Meliá Hotels International, Gabriel Cánaves, according to Preferente.Com, a travel industry website.
The Iberostar Hotels & Resorts added that the company had “recorded not one case of cholera in the hotels until now, or cancellations of reservations because of that,” and that for the chain “the safety and health of its clients and employees is an absolute priority.