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Cholera Spreads Misery Along Colombia’s Coastal Tidelands

June 10, 1991

TUMACO, Colombia (AP) _ She arrived at San Andres hospital, wan and cold from the dehydration of cholera, after an eight-hour canoe trip through the hot tidelands of southern Colombia’s Pacific Coast.

Three doctors and three nurses rushed to rehydrate the woman with saline and dextrose solutions, but even five one-liter bags were not enough to save her life.

″The closest calls are the ones who arrive in canoes,″ said Rosalia, one of the nurses. ″They’re usually courting death by the time they get here.″

Cholera has killed more than 2,000 people since South America’s first epidemic of the century began on the Peruvian coast in January.

In Chaguy, a village outside Tumaco, Maria Adiela Ceron, 24, had no canoe to take her 5-month-old daughter to a hospital. The baby, not yet named, had suffered from diarrhea for two days and may have been infected with cholera.

Places like Chaguy, where raw sewage mixes with drinking water, are ideal targets for the disease. It has infected about 1,300 people in Colombia, most of them black residents of such fishing towns along the Pacific coast, according to the Health Ministry.

Doctors working on the coast say there have been about 30 cholera-related deaths, 12 of them reported May 28 in Timbiqui, a remote village.

″The people dying are the poorest people from the most isolated areas,″ said Dr. Julio Cesar Campusano, director of a hospital in Tumaco, the main coastal city.

Cholera is not hard to cure when caught in time, but is spread rapidly by polluted water systems, improper sewage disposal and contaminated fish. Most people who contract it are saved by rehydration.

Women are especially susceptible, since they are in closest contact with water and food.

Tumaco has many of the conditions in which cholera can thrive.

Residents dump garbage and raw sewage into the water from houses built on stilts at the edge of the sea. Their children play in the same water.

When it rains, the water overflows into the streets, creating easy passage for cholera.

Dr. Marcos Rodriguez, director of San Andres hospital, said Colombia was lucky because it had time to prepare as the epidemic moved up the coast.

″We learned from the experience of Peru and Ecuador,″ he said. ″If cholera had started here, we would have had a much bigger disaster.″

In Guapi, 80 miles northeast of Tumaco, health workers set up a makeshift village hospital in an indoor basketball court weeks before cholera arrived.

When the first 20 patients fell ill at the same time, Guapi was ready to for them with rehydration solution, beds and a medical team.

The Colombian government has begun a television and radio campaign to explain cholera prevention.

Campusano and his colleagues on the coast travel by sea from village to village, giving residents lessons in washing hands, boiling water and cleaning fish. They also give rehydration treatment for those already afflicted.

Still, cholera has spread slowly northward to Buenaventura, and even Cali, the main urban center of southwestern Colombia.

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