The cholera epidemic could affect at least 6 million Latin Americans and kill 42,000 of them if it continues spreading at its present rate, the head of the Panamerican Health Organization said Friday.
"It is almost inevitable that we will have an epidemic of a monstrous nature in Latin America," Carlyle Guerra told a news conference.Colombia officials, meanwhile, reported the first two deaths from the disease that has also surfaced in Equador, Brazil, and Chile.
Guerra, who is meeting with the ministers of health, housing and education to discuss ways to control the disease, said he was worried by the "near impossibility of containing" the epidemic.
Some 3 million people could contract cholera in Brazil alone, where the first cases were confirmed in that country this week, he said.
But he ruled out the threat of an epidemic in the United States, despite the discovery of two suspected cases in Miami this week. He said U.S. education and health services were sufficiently developed to prevent the disease from spreading out of control.
Spread mainly by food and water contaminated by the feces of victims, cholera has mostly affected poor people in the region, who for the most part live in homes that lack running water or sewage systems.
The disease, which saps the body of fluids, has killed at least 1,140 Peruvians and infected about 3 percent of Peru's 22 million people, officials say, many of them silent carriers. The disease first broke out along Peru's Pacific coast in late January.
The epidemic has killed at least 59 people in Ecuador. It spread to Brazil, in the Amazon region, and Brazilian health officials fear a massive outbreak if it reaches the heavily populated Atlantic Coast. Authorities in Chile on Friday said the number of cases there had doubled to six.
Guerra said cholera will probably remain widespread in Peru for three to six months. He said the epidemic in Peru's Amazonian jungle probably will peak in late May or June.
But Guerra said the number of new cases along Peru's coast will probably begin to drop as people build up immunity to the disease.
In Colombia, Health Minister Camilo Gonzalez the government is trying to "avoid a rapid expansion of the disease as happened in Peru and Ecuador."
Chilean officials on Friday banned transport of 13 vegetables suspected of spreading the disease.