By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Humanitarian workers in Haiti are preparing for fresh cholera outbreaks as the rainy season threatens to revive an epidemic that has killed nearly 5,000 people since October, U.N. officials said Wednesday.
The warning from the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) reflects big challenges that will confront Haitian President-elect Michel Martelly.
Martelly, a former carnival singer with no previous government experience, takes the reins of his impoverished, earthquake-battered Caribbean nation Saturday.
Martelly has said that fighting the seven-month-old cholera epidemic and helping destitute survivors of the 2010 earthquake will be immediate priorities of his presidency.
A huge U.N.-led humanitarian operation has helped to reduce the fatality rate from the cholera epidemic from peaks last year when dozens of sick patients were dying every day.
But downpours heralding this year's rainy season appear to have led to increased cholera cases again in some areas, prompting fears of fresh outbreaks of the deadly diarrheal disease that is spread by contaminated water and food.
"More water means more cholera and the sanitation in the country is still very weak," OCHA spokesperson Emmanuelle Schneider told Reuters.
"We are calling for heightened vigilance ... we are expecting (fresh) outbreaks of cholera in the West, including Port-au-Prince, South and Southeast Departments," she added.
The epidemic is not expected to regain the deadly force seen in previous months. But aid workers said the fresh outbreaks underline the vulnerability of much of the population in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation.
Haiti's health ministry says the epidemic killed 4,938 people from mid-October up to April 29.
"We are afraid that with the rainy season and the cyclones it's going to be quite problematic again," said Esther van der Woerdt, a coordinator with the PAHO/World Health Organization.
The United Nations has been embarrassed by investigations into the epidemic that indicate that cholera may have been introduced to Haiti by U.N. peacekeepers, although the world body says there is no conclusive evidence.
Schneider said the United Nations and its humanitarian partners need more funding to cover a U.N. appeal for around $175 million to cover the cholera response, and $950 million requested last year by the world body for earthquake aid.
The U.N. cholera response appeal has been only 48 percent covered by donors, while the response to the U.N. earthquake appeal lags even further, with only 20 percent covered.
"We need more money than this ... we predict that there's still going to be 500,000 people in camps at the end of the year," Schneider said, referring to homeless earthquake victims who are still sheltering in tent and tarpaulin camps.
The 2010 quake killed more than 300,000 people and initially left more than 1.5 million homeless.
Foreign donors, who have pledged billions of dollars of reconstruction funds, are hoping that Martelly can form a stable government in one of the world's most volatile states to channel aid and investment into the wrecked economy.
(Additional reporting and writing by Pascal Fletcher in Miami; Editing by Will Dunham)