Cholera outbreak in Cuba kept mostly quiet

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MIAMI -- Cuban dissident Walter Clavel says that when he took his 2-year-old son to a Cuban hospital Wednesday with a case of diarrhea, the boy was tested for a sometimes fatal disease that the government is stubbornly refusing to acknowledge -- cholera.

Nurses told him the test was negative, and the boy was not quarantined in the three wards reserved for cholera patients at the North Pediatric Hospital in eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, Mr. Clavel said.

Cuba, especially the eastern third of the island, is suffering an alarming outbreak of cholera, brewed in its decrepit water and sewer systems and fueled by Hurricane Sandy's floods, according to residents.

More than a dozen deaths have been reliably reported. Hospitals and prisons have been quarantined at times. Schools have been shut down, and so have restaurants and street kiosks selling juices and others products made with water.

Cuba's government has said nothing publicly about cholera since Aug. 28, when it announced that an outbreak in the eastern city of Manzanillo -- the first in a century -- had ended after 417 confirmed cases, three fatal.

Police stationed at hospitals are telling visitors to keep quiet about the cholera and other diseases, Mr. Clavel said -- apparently to avoid upsetting the Caribbean island's $2.5 billion-a-year tourism industry.

Worst-hit by the cholera has been eastern Cuba, where Sandy came ashore last month between Manzanillo and Santiago, the island's second-largest city and capital of a province with the same name. It damaged water, electricity and sewer systems, flooded latrines and left behind puddles where dengue-carrying mosquitoes easily bred.

"There is tremendous worry in Santiago," said Mr. Clavel, one of a dozen Cubans contacted for this story. Many were dissidents, unafraid to talk about the epidemics. Their versions coincided in many ways, but could not be individually confirmed.

In the only independent report, a Nov. 2 announcement by the Pan American Health Organization in Washington, D.C., a branch of the World Health Organization, noted that "suspected cholera cases detected in several areas of the country continue to be investigated."

Two Cubans said the cholera spread rapidly after the hurricane in part because infected inmates at the Mar Verde prison were transferred to the Boniato prison, both in Santiago province, and later to another prison in the neighboring province of Camaguey.

Havana dissident Dania Virgen García, who stays in contact with political prisoners throughout the island, said cholera is spreading prison to prison because of their notoriously bad hygiene.

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