Aid Groups Race to Stop Haiti Cholera Outbreak

Russ Jones | Christian Press | Monday, October 25, 2010

Aid Groups Race to Stop Haiti Cholera Outbreak

October 25, 2010

Just days after the devastating earthquake in January, most doctors I talked to in Haiti were already worried about the nation's drinking water. They told me access to clean water sources would dramatically impact the recovery. Now, for doctors like Tom Schott, the outbreak of cholera 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince has proved those concerns true. 

"I'm not surprised about the outbreak," said Schott, an Irving, Tex.-based physician who volunteered at Mission of Hope Clinic following the earthquake. "I actually thought it would have happened sooner than now. It tells me that organizations have been doing a good job in prevention." 

The rise of a deadly waterborne disease in St. Marc was only a matter of time, he says, given the lack of shelter and good hygiene. Schott says it is critical Haitians understand how they might contaminate their own water supply. 

"People are defecating in the same water they are drinking and bathing in," said Schott. "I would expect something like cholera to breakout. There is only so much organizations can do until the behaviors of the people catch up with them." 

Cholera has been virtually unheard of in Haiti since 1960. Nonetheless, the recent outbreak has already infected over 3,000 people and killed 250 more. Aid agencies predict the disaster will be far greater if reaches the heavily populated capital city. 

The Start of an Epidemic 

While it is not clear what caused the outbreak, most humanitarian aid experts are reluctant to connect the outbreak with the earthquake. Most agree, however, for cholera to exist, bad hygiene and sanitation have to simultaneously occur with people carrying the Vibrio Cholerae bacterium. 

Epidemiologist Dr. Tom Wood, a director of program development for Samaritan's Purse and who is on the ground in Haiti, told the cholera outbreak could be linked to overpopulation in the rural central valley of Artibonite. 

"There is a large displaced group of people who left Port-au-Prince after the earthquake and who now live in the epicenter of the outbreak," says Wood. "The water wasn't clean in the first place, but now this growth in population has made the contamination of the water supply worse." 

Wood says flooding has pushed contamination into the Artibonite River. Samaritan's Purse teams of medical and emergency relief personnel are encouraging people who live on the river's banks - and depend on it for bathing and drinking - to boil the water before consumption. 

"This cholera outbreak is moving quickly and the sick need care immediately," said Wood. "Right now our focus is to provide oral rehydration salts and IVs to the sick and prevent the disease from spreading with clean water and hygiene education."  

Relief Efforts Stemming Outbreak 

Samaritan's Purse medical and emergency relief teams are in the rural central valley of Artibonite providing medical care, clean water and hygiene training to help stop the outbreak of cholera. The organization's relief helicopter is kept busy transporting IV solutions, oral rehydration salts, cots, doctors and nurses, enabling the team to set up mobile rehydration clinics in Marchand Dessalines and Villard. 

"We are confident we can bring it [cholera] under control," said Wood. "Our biggest worry is that it will get into Port-au-Prince where there are still tent cities housing earthquake victims. If it gets there we have a real problem on our hands. We are pushing to control and stop it." 

South Carolina-based Water Missions International is in Haiti feverously working around the clock to slow the spread of the fatal disease. 

The organization already has 115 water treatment systems in Haiti serving 200,000 earthquake victims. Now, teams are building five additional systems that can serve 25,000 potential outbreak victims who could possibly avoid the water-born illness. 

"Every hour equals lives saved or lost as we airlift and truck as many water treatment systems as possible," said Pat Haughney, Water Missions International engineer. 

World Vision is sending its water, sanitation and health teams to the region to do full assessments and is also coordinating its response with UNICEF, the Government of Haiti and other international aid agencies.  The aid agency's emergency response team is taking immediate steps to prevent an outbreak in its Port-au-Prince camps by distributing soap, increasing hygiene promotion, and providing extra chlorination in the water.  In addition, the aid agency is pre-positioning medicines, masks, gloves, stretchers and pick-up trucks to transport patients to nearby hospitals in the event that an outbreak occurs in one of its camps. 

"With an outbreak like this, we must react immediately; hygiene promotion and soap are two of the most crucial prevention measures you can implement quickly and effectively to prevent more deaths," said Theo Huitema, the manager of World Vision's water, sanitation and hygiene program in Haiti. 

Haitian government officials urged anyone suffering diarrhea to make their own rehydration serum out of salt, sugar and water to drink on the way to a hospital. 

Alex Larsen, Haiti's minister of health, has declared that the country was "in a sanitary crisis. This is a new woe for the country which has not seen this disease in the recent past." 

Russ Jones is an award winning journalist and co-publisher of Christian Press Newspaper ( and CEO of BIG Picture Media Group, Inc., a boutique media firm located in Newton, Kansas. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. Jones is also a freelance reporter for the Christian Broadcasting Network, the Total Living Network, Travel with Spirit and American Family Radio Network. He may be reached at [email protected].