Cholera response steps up as Haiti’s rainy season begins

(CNS/Paul Jeffrey)

An upswing in cholera in Haiti has prompted health care workers and aid agencies to step up efforts to prevent the water-borne disease from spreading rapidly as the rainy season begins.

Catholic Relief Services was among the aid agencies that boosted the distribution of soap, water purification tablets and hygiene information within 24 hours of the initial spike in early April following a period of heavy rain. CRS reported reaching 22,000 families within days; in Port-au-Prince, agency workers installed or repaired sanitation stations and increased disinfection and maintenance of facilities in 12 settlements where people left homeless by the January 2010 earthquake remain in crude shelters.

In addition, Boston-based Partners in Health has embarked on a vaccination program with the goal of reaching 100,000 people. While the vaccine typically is effective 70 percent of the time, PIH has set out to show that a concentrated vaccination campaign can significantly reduce the threat of the disease as long as vaccine supplies are available, Donna Barry, the agency’s director of policy and advocacy, told a congressional briefing April 18.

Despite such outreach, several speakers said during the briefing that all Haitians are at risk of contracting the disease, which can kill in a matter of hours if left untreated.

Now some history. The first cholera cases surfaced in central Haiti in Artibonite department in October 2010. Until then, the disease had no history in the country. Investigators traced the source to a faulty sanitation system at a camp housing Nepalese soldiers, who are part of the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. The U.N. has declined to acknowledge it was responsible for the outbreak, sparking protest from some Haitian organizations. More than 7,050 people have died and more than 532,000 people — 5 percent of the population — have contracted the disease, according to the Haitian Ministry of Health and Population.

As the rainy season begins, those most at risk are the 500,000 people who remain in the settlements across the earthquake zone, said Luiz Augusto Galvao, manager of sustainable development and environmental health area for the Pan-American Health Organization.

He decried the lack of access to safe water and sanitation for many Haitians. Only 69 percent of Haitians can access safe drinking water and just 17 percent have access to sanitation systems.

An international coalition is attempting to address the situation, but he acknowledged it will be years before things improve.

So what to do?

Agencies such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, the Inter-American Development Bank, UNICEF, U.N.-Water and the governments of Brazil, Canada and France are pulling together to address the water problems facing Haiti, Galvao said. Other speakers called upon the world to make good on the billions of dollars pledged in the months after the earthquake to spur an effort to bring clean water and sanitation to all Haitians.

“For now we need to save lives,” Galvao said.

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