Cholera Breaks Out in Acapulco

from Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
Published on 14 Oct 1997
8:00 AM EDT

By David Luhnow

ACAPULCO, Mexico (Reuters) - Three cases of cholera appeared in this disease-prone tropical resort as health officials braced for outbreaks of killer epidemics following devastation wreaked by Hurricane Pauline.

Teams of government health workers set up makeshift vaccine centers across the stricken resort city and in other smaller villages along the coasts of Guerrero and Oaxaca states to prevent the spread of diseases like typhoid fever, hepatitis and cholera which thrive in the tropics.

"Acapulco is a breeding ground right now for infections that could lead to epidemics," Mexican Health Minister Juan Ramon de la Fuente told a news conference.

"We have placed the city under a health alert and will continue that alert," he said.

Up to 400 people died in the flooding and chaos that accompanied Pauline's deadly sweep along the Pacific coast. And rescue officials were still arriving at more remote communities on Monday to survey the damage and check for more dead.

Officials now fear epidemics could threaten many more in the largely poor region, where drinking water has become mixed with sewage by the flood.

Mosquitoes carrying malaria or dengue fever were also likely to breed quickly in huge pools of stagnant water that cover the
region, health workers said. Six cases of dengue fever have been reported in the past week.

In Acapulco, the hardest hit city, tons of rainwater that washed down the surrounding mountains during the storm mixed with
sewage and rotting remains trapped in mudslides, covering the city with a deadly -- and smelly -- layer of mud.

As the blazing sun began to dry the pools of water and mud that cover the city, cars and trucks involved in the rescue and clean-up effort kicked up huge clouds of disease-carrying dust.

Most residents wore surgical masks to filter the dirty air.

Local newspapers warned residents that their food and water needed to be boiled for at least 30 minutes because they could become contaminated by the flying dust.

Thousands of foreign tourists were forced to start limiting their water use to just a few hours a day amid a severe shortage of
drinking water for most of the city. It was the first sacrifice local authorities had exacted on tourists who were largely unaffected by the storm.

Despite the move, more than 70 percent of the city was still without clean water. Emergency water treatment plants were set up and groups of people mobbed trucks carrying fresh water. Tempers flared whenever the trucks ran out.

"Bring back more water, damn you!" yelled Romero Ascencio, 70, as he chased after one empty water truck banging on its sides with his yellow bucket.

The lack of clean water or food also sparked fresh charges of corruption. Angry residents said local authorities were favoring supporters of the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) in distributing relief supplies.

"We've seen nothing of the relief. It's all going to party leaders and they are even selling it in some cases," charged Elsa Batista, a 35-year old mother of five. Batista was soon surrounded by dozens of other people at the shelter who nodded in agreement at her accusations.

In a bid to head off further criticism, state officials handed control of 300 shelters in the city to the army instead of local authorities. State gov. Angel Aguirre pledged to probe the accusations and said those involved would be arrested.

Rescue workers and teams of specially trained dogs continued to search for more victims believed to be buried under the rubble. But they said they were only finding one or two corpses a day and that the effort could take weeks.

The government's death toll from the storm had risen to 173 dead and more than 200 missing but the Red Cross said it was sticking by its estimate that around 400 people had perished. ^REUTERS@

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