By Marc Frank
HAVANA, July 10 (Reuters) - A cholera outbreak in Cuba blamed for at least three deaths has been mostly contained so far to the eastern city of Manzanillo and surrounding towns, with just a few scattered cases confirmed elsewhere in the country, a public health official told Reuters on Tuesday.
The official, with daily access to information on efforts to control the outbreak, and who asked that her name not be used, said that along with the three confirmed deaths there were two suspected ones, all in the Manzanillo area.
There have been reports that at least 15 people had died and the illness had spread to other parts of Cuba, but she said that was not true.
Current cases of the disease may stem from someone travelling from Haiti, where there is a cholera epidemic, the official said.
"“We have diagnosed one case in Havana, another in central Camaguey and a few others around the country, and all these people had been in the Manzanillo area," she said, adding that other potential cases were under observation.
Residents traveling by public transportation from Granma province, where Manzanillo is located, are being checked before departure and upon arrival at their destination, then followed by the country's vast network of community-based doctors, the official explained.
Cholera is generally not fatal but can kill in just a few hours when diarrhea and vomiting cause dehydration, especially among the elderly.
The official said the illness runs its course within a week, making it relatively easy to track. She said the reports of inflated death tolls and a spreading outbreak may be a result of Cuba's cautious approach to the situation.
"“Community clinics are checking patients with severe diarrhea, which is common here during the summer, and if they meet certain criteria they are hospitalized for further study, which their neighbors assume means they have cholera, when few if any do," she said.
The lack of official information also has led to much speculation and rumor.
In its only statement so far, the government confirmed on July 3 rumors of the cholera outbreak in a brief statement, saying 53 cases had been diagnosed and three elderly people had died.
EXTREME MEASURES IN GRANMA
Another well placed source in Granma said that as of Monday there were 85 confirmed cases, with a few hundred others under study and hundreds of health and other personnel working to snuff out the outbreak.
"Manzanillo is a city where there was no water system and thousands of homes relied on wells and latrines, many of which are still in use," he said.
"Rivers, streams, wells and latrines flooded in June due to heavy rainfall, contaminating many wells and causing thousands of cases of severe diarrhea, of which 85 have tested positively for the cholera germ," he said.
Residents in Granma province said they were being kept informed of the situation and given daily instructions to take preventive measures through local television and radio.
"They are giving instructions day and night about the measures we should take," Manzanillo construction worker Roberto said in a telephone interview, preferring not to give his full name.
"The public health people are all over the place and it appears they have it controlled, but I'm taking no chances," he said.
Neither was housewife Maria Elena, who said she was traveling to neighboring Santiago de Cuba to buy food even though local authorities said cooking meat and produce killed the bacteria.
"I'd rather exaggerate precautions than be sorry for a problem in the family later," she said, also not giving her full name.
There have been no cholera outbreaks reported in Cuba since well before the 1959 revolution and the creation of a national health system by the Communist government.
Hundreds of Cuban doctors and nurses have worked for over a decade in Haiti which has battled a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 7,000 people since that country's 2010 earthquake.
"“With so many of our health and other professionals working in Haiti, and given that there are hundreds of Haitians studying medicine and other careers in eastern Cuba, we knew it was just a matter of time before there was an outbreak and were prepared," the public health official said.
"We are actually at a relatively low state of alert, as neither Manzanillo nor Granma are quarantined, and no local commissions have been set up for cholera, except in Granma," she said.
Cuba lies closer to Haiti than any other Caribbean country, with the exception of the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with the crisis stricken country and has reported more than 21,500 cholera cases and 363 deaths since the Haiti epidemic began.
(Editing by Jeff Franks)