(CNN) — Chaos reigned north of Haiti’s capital Friday as hospitals overflowed with people rushing to get help from a fast-moving cholera break that has killed at least 138 people.
Terry Snow, Haiti director for the non-profit Youth With a Mission, saw people lined up outside hospitals and clinics, many in stretchers, waiting 24 hours or more to get care.
Snow said he tried to take one man with cholera to various clinics, only to end up at St. Nicholas hospital in Saint Marc to learn that it was full. The man died soon thereafter in the back of his truck, he said.
“This is totally unprecedented,” said Snow, who has lived in Haiti for about 20 years. “We have never had an outbreak like this.”
In addition to the at least 138 people who have died, 1,526 people have been sickened in the outbreak, said Imogen Wall, the U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman in Haiti. All the cases have been reported in the Lower Artibonite region, north of the capital, Port-au-Prince, she said. And officials expect the picture to worsen before it gets better, given the speed of the disease.
“It’s very chaotic,” said Snow of the scene in the city of Saint Marc and nearby. “People are trying to figure out what to do. People are lost.”
Snow said that “constant miscommunication and confusion” have hindered aid efforts, though he expressed hope things may improve Friday as more help comes in.
A lack of clean, filtered water and a dearth of qualified medical personnel remained other pressing problems, Snow said. Government authorities and people from various non-profit groups also were working to install water filtration systems around the region, especially at hospitals and health clinics, he said.
Cholera is caused by a bacterial infection of the intestine and, in severe cases, is characterized by diarrhea, vomiting and leg cramps, according to the U.S.-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In such cases, rapid loss of body fluids can lead to dehydration and shock. “Without treatment, death can occur within hours,” the agency says.
A person can get cholera by drinking water or eating food contaminated with the bacteria. During epidemics, the source of the contamination is often the feces of an infected person, and infections can spread rapidly in areas where there is poor sewage treatment and a lack of clean drinking water, according to the CDC.
All the reported cases in the Lower Artibonite involve severe diarrhea and vomiting, Wall said.
Dr. Michel Thieren of the Pan American Health Organization also described the outbreak as “severe,” and said officials are trying to track how far it has spread.
“This is an unprecedented episode of cholera, and the government needs a lot of support, and they need to be vigilant in how they respond,” he said.
The United Nations has been sending tents and rehydration supplies to the region, and will continue its efforts Friday, Wall said.
“It’s a very worrying situation. We’re very concerned,” she said.
The Haitian government has not issued an official statement on the outbreak.
The impoverished island nation is still trying to bounce back from a catastrophic 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January that destroyed much of the capital city. In the aftermath of the disaster, health officials were concerned about the risk of diseases such as cholera and tuberculosis spreading, though they found the general health had not worsened in the months that followed.
The U.N. mission in Haiti credited access to clean water and free medical facilities for reducing the chances of an outbreak. There was no immediate indication that the recent cases of cholera are tied to the January 12 quake.