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Cholera Epidemic Kills at Least 20

July 24, 1996

BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) _ Lack of clean drinking water is making it hard to control a cholera outbreak in Colombia’s isolated northern desert, which has killed at least 20 people and infected 600 others.

Most of the victims are Wayuu Indians. The toll from the month-long outbreak could be higher because the Wayuu often bury their dead without notifying authorities, Dr. Elias Daza, health director for the Guajira peninsula, said Wednesday.

The victims lived in and around Manaure, 500 miles northeast of the capital, Bogota. Fifty people have died from cholera on the peninsula so far this year.

Cholera, a bacterial disease, is spread through contaminated water and food. Victims suffer from dehydration and diarrhea. With prompt medical attention, most people survive.

``The problem is that some Wayuu live in very isolated places and can’t get (to the hospital) quickly enough,″ Daza said in a phone interview from Manaure.

Absent a reliable source of clean water, the Wayuu often bathe and drink at dirty wells.

The Guajira peninsula is home to the Wayuu Indians, Colombia’s largest indigenous group with 150,000 members.

Last year, an outbreak of dengue and equine encephalitis on the arid peninsula killed at least 26 people. Both mosquito-borne diseases cause fever, vomiting, headaches and in some cases death.

Cholera, absent in South America for decades, struck Peru in 1991 and has since spread throughout the continent. Worldwide, it causes 120,000 deaths a year, according to the U.N. World Health Organization.

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