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Haitian election still on, despite hurricane and cholera epidemic

A man helps a woman to cross a flooded road for money in Leogane, 33 km south of Port-au-Prince, on November 6, 2010.


The death tolls in Haiti from Hurricane Tomas and a raging cholera epidemic have risen, but a top United Nations official said on Monday there were "no objective reasons" why elections should not be held later this month in the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean country.

Tomas swiped Haiti on Friday, bringing rain and flooding but largely sparing crowded tent and tarpaulin camps in the capital Port au-Prince housing hundreds of thousands of homeless survivors of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.

At least 20 people were killed in the flooding, mostly in southern provinces, local civil protection officials said, raising the figure from eight reported late on Saturday.

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Haiti's uphill recovery from the earthquake, helped by a big United Nations-led relief effort, has also been compounded by the deadly cholera epidemic which broke out last month.

The death toll from this dehydrating diarrheal disease reached 544 by Nov. 6, with more than 8,100 hospitalized cases recorded, Haitian and international health officials said.

With UN peacekeepers and humanitarian agencies stretched between the storm and cholera response and the post-quake recovery, questions have arisen over whether Haiti can hold credible presidential and legislative elections as scheduled on Nov. 28. The latter were already postponed from February.

But the UN's top representative in the country, Edmond Mulet, said no discussions were being held with the government and electoral authorities about postponing the polls.

"There are no objective reasons not to have elections on Nov. 28. Technically, logistically, security, budget, all is in place," Mr. Mulet told Reuters in an e-mail response to questions.

This month's vote will elect a successor to President Rene Preval, a 99-member parliament and 11 members of the 30-seat Senate, choosing leaders to steer Haiti's recovery from the crippling quake that wrecked the capital Port-au-Prince.

Analysts say the elections could be the most important in Haiti's history, but many see the path to the polls threatened by risks of political violence, as well as the huge humanitarian challenges.

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Health experts say they are concerned that floodwaters from Hurricane Tomas could multiply the risks from cholera, which is spread by contaminated water and food. Cholera can kill in hours, but if caught early can be easily treated through oral rehydration.

The main focus of the cholera outbreak has been the Artibonite River watershed that straddles central Haiti. The river was seen as a major factor in spreading the disease, and flooding from Tomas would make this worse.

"If a river with cholera bacteria flows over and the water stays around for days, or becomes mud, that is certainly bad," said Christian Lindmeier, spokesman in Haiti for the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization.

Outdoor latrines overflowing in rural communities could also worsen the spread of the disease, he told Reuters.

So far, the epidemic has mostly hit rural provinces outside the capital, but with some suspected cases already being reported in the city's largest slum of Cite Soleil, health workers are bracing for a major outbreak in Port-au-Prince.

Mr. Lindmeier said special cholera treatment centers had been set up in and around the capital, making 1,000 beds available.

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No significant infection had been detected so far in the capital's camps housing more than 1.3 million earthquake survivors, which comparatively had better health surveillance and access to clean water than the city's slums, he added.

Tomas, which also caused flooding in Dominican Republic, has dissipated in the Atlantic, and one prominent U.S. forecaster said it could be the last life-threatening storm of the busy 2010 Atlantic hurricane season.

"I believe we are all done this hurricane season with dangerous storms capable of causing loss of life," hurricane expert Jeff Masters of Weather Underground wrote in his blog.

But he still saw a 50 per cent chance of another storm, though not capable of inflicting casualties.

The six-month season that ends Nov. 30 has seen 12 hurricanes, five of them major.

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