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08/27/2013

Ottawa advises "special precautions" to counter Cuban cholera risk

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Javier Acosta mixes drinks for patrons of his privately-run Havana restaurant. Despite a recent cholera outbreak in Cuba, visitors can stay safe by following straightfoward precautions. (AP Photo/Javier Galeano)

 

 

The Canadian government has issued a "Level Two" travel advisory, warning of cholera outbreaks in three Caribbean countries – the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and now Cuba.

Although less serious and more recent than the outbreaks in the other two countries, Cuba’s problems with the disease are more startling because the island had been cholera-free for roughly a century.

A “Level Two” travel warning does not mean that Canadians shouldn’t visit the affected countries. Instead, it encourages them to practise “special precautions” while there.

A Public Health Agency of Canada guide to safe food-and-water practices for Canadians traveling abroad can be found here.

Travelers headed for high-risk areas – generally, regions where access to clean food and water is limited – may want to consider being vaccinated against the disease, says the advisory. Travelers who develop severe diarrhea or vomiting, or both, should seek medical attention at once.

Cholera is caused by the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, which infects the intestines and causes rapid dehydration. It can be life-threatening if not promptly treated.

According to news reports from Havana, the Cuban government this month reported 163 new cases of cholera this year, including 12 cases involving foreigners, all of them from Europe or South America. There were no fatalities among these cases, all of which are reported to have occurred in three provinces – Havana, Santiago de Cuba, and Camagüey.

Last summer, Havana reported 417 cases of the disease, with three fatalities.

According to a report by the Associated Press, the recent outbreak in Havana has been linked to two “food distribution centres” in the city, where “corrective measures were taken to combat the disease.”

A report in the Miami Herald says foreigners hit with cholera in Cuba generally receive superior medical care – better than the care provided to Cubans – but may run into medical-insurance disputes once the treatment is completed.

The recent appearance of the disease in Cuba has been linked to the presence of thousands of Cuban medical workers in Haiti, which suffered a major cholera outbreak following the devastating earthquake in January 2010. Since then, more than 8,000 Haitians have died of cholera.

The neighbouring Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, has suffered nearly 30,000 cholera cases between 2010 and the end of 2012, with 422 cholera-related deaths during the same period.

Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.

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