First it was the water. Now it’s the food.
The Dominican Republic is doing all it can to prevent an outbreak of cholera already devastating its neighbor, Haiti. It is setting up bleach stop points on its borders, cleaning its rivers and chlorinating its water supply.
But one of its most controversial efforts is one that could have a major impact on a longtime Latin American practice – street vending.
Street vending is big business in Latin America – freshly peeled mangoes and steaks on a stick can be bought on the cheap in open-air markets that dot many streets in the Dominican Republic, and Latin America.
But the Dominican government, after confirming its first case of cholera on Tuesday, is now asking locals and tourists to stay away – urging them not to buy food or drinks from street peddlers because of possible food contamination.
Experts say it’s not surprising the government is taking such drastic steps on food vendors – considering the unsanitary history of food vendors. Unlike the United States, which has stringent rules on food vendors, many Latin America countries basically allow anyone to set up food carts .
“It’s not surprising,” said Jordan Tappero, who leads the CDC team on cholera response in Haiti. “Food vendors often work in urban environments with unhygienic practices – they have food sitting in warm temperatures for many hours which can permit rapid bacterial multiplication.”
A cholera outbreak in Latin America in 1992 – which killed dozens of people in Brazil and Peru – prompted health officials to crack down on food vendors in those countries.
Food vendors, although not blamed for being the source of the 1992 cholera outbreak, was certainly singled out as a serious risk factor. The countries imposed strict regulations that monitored food vendors to ensure they complied with basic sanitation regulations.
In China, cold food street sales were outright banned for a time following a deadly cholera outbreak in the mid-1990s.
The problem with food vendors, some say, is many don’t follow basic hygiene like washing their hands or using sanitized water for ice chips or freezing food. And people most people with cholera don’t realize they have it – only one in four exhibit symptoms – vendors can spread the disease without realizing they have it.
Also, since they could set up shop anywhere, some park their carts close to sewage plants which exposes the food to contamination.
“Food cart vendors need to receive proper training in soap and water, frequent washing of their hands, and using chlorinated water,” Tappero said, adding that even hot street vending food, if not properly stored or well cooked, may not be safe to eat.