Haiti cholera outbreak: "This disease can’t beat us"

In central Haiti, the Artibonite province is awash in water. As we drive through the cholera-stricken region on Sunday, day three of our emergency cholera response, I see water everywhere – rice paddies, irrigation canals, small rivers, cesspools and puddles.

Heading inland toward our work site, we stop to ask for directions. I hop out of the car to take a phone call. As I speak on live radio to audiences in the UK, I look down and see a dead pig lying in stagnant water. A few yards away a mother washes clothes as her naked children play in the yard. The heat burns my neck, and I stare, transfixed, at all this water. None of it is safe to drink.

In Haiti, even before the disastrous quake of January 12, fewer than 20 percent of people had access to a toilet. Only half of people had safe drinking water. These statistics run through my head as we roll down the road, seeking to reach our emergency team of public health experts dispatched to our assigned work zone in Petite Riviere, population 100,000.

I’ve lived in Haiti for seven months, sent here as part of the Oxfam earthquake response. Each day here I’m surrounded by grotesque poverty and inequality. But today, in the cholera zone of Artibonite, in the midst of the latest Haitian emergency, I feel angry. This is the rice basket of Haiti. President Preval comes from this region. But here in Artibonite, most people don’t have a private, sanitary place to poop. They drink dirty water from the river. Their education levels are so low that many of them don’t know about the importance of hand washing and sanitary food preparation.

A small crowd has gathered in front of a broken-down concrete house on the country road. Oxfam public health experts are negotiating a contract with a local radio station. We’ll be broadcasting messages about safe hygiene practices, like hand washing, to 100,000 people by the end of the evening. I approach Jane, our lead public health specialist, and ask her how it’s going.

It’s going to be ok. We have a lot of education to do, but it’s going to be fine,” she says calmly.

Jane has years of experience working in countries around the world, and this is certainly not the first time she’s seen a cholera outbreak. She runs down a succinct list of planned activities:

  • distributions today and tomorrow of soap, oral rehydration salts and water purification tablets to reach 40,000 people,
  • training community leaders about good hygiene practices so they can go back and train their friends and neighbors,
  • repair of wells and purification of natural water sources.

A few hours later, we gather at our new supply warehouse – a rice processing facility the community offered to us, saying they wanted to help stop cholera. Dozens of men from the neighborhood have gathered to help unload the truck filled with buckets and soap. They stand in an excited huddle, many without shoes, as our staff call out directions about how many buckets for each distribution.

Our last stop before heading back to Port-au-Prince is the hospital at St. Marc, where hundreds of sick people flooded the concrete floors in the first 48 hours of the outbreak. But in the fading Sunday afternoon light, the hospital is quiet and calm. Orderly rows of beds and IV drips are manned by doctors and nurses speaking in soft undertones. A man with a megaphone is broadcasting messages encouraging hand washing and eating only cooked food. As we walk through the chlorine foot bath and back to the car, our water and sanitation advisor nods his head with satisfaction. “We’ll stop this cholera,” he says. “This disease can’t beat us.”

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