By the end of today, Oxfam is aiming to have distributed emergency supplies to 40,000 people in an effort to stem the spread of a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 250 people and sickened more than 3,000 in the Artibonite and Central Plateau regions of Haiti, north of the capital of Port-au-Prince.
While recent reports indicate the situation may be stabilizing, Oxfam says a great deal of work remains to be done to ensure people have the information they need to help prevent the spread of the diarrheal disease. Five cases have been confirmed in Port-au-Prince, the capital crowded with camps for people displaced by the January 12 earthquake. But officials stress that those cases were not contracted in the city; they originated in Artibonite.
Access to clean water and good hygiene are essential in preventing cholera which can kill within hours if severely sick patients do not get prompt care. Treatment includes the administration of oral rehydration salts, and for very sick patients, intravenous fluids. Oxfam staffers report that medical care and hospitals are now well set up and getting a foothold against the disease.
“Contrary to news reports from Friday and Saturday, the hospital in hard-hit St. Marc was very calm yesterday,” said Oxfam press office Julie Schindall, who visited the Artibonite region on Sunday. “I was very encouraged by the sight of an orderly, clean hospital with long rows of beds, IV drips, and a calm admissions line.”
But the realities of life in Artibonite—a rural region with poor water and sanitation infrastructure--were also very clear to Schindall.
“As we were driving around in our assigned work zone in Petite Riviere, I saw a young boy, maybe 12, bathing in a deep pool of stagnant water, surrounded by rusted old trucks,” said Schindall. “His mouth was open and he was drinking the water. We clearly have a lot of work to do to educate people about good personal hygiene practices. At the same time, we have to be sure people actually have access to clean water.”
Cholera is caused by consuming food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholera. Though the exact source of the outbreak is not known, access to clean water is a problem for many people in the countryside.
“Everywhere I went yesterday there was water all around—rice paddies, irrigation canals, rivers. But not a drop of that is safe for drinking,” said Schindall.
The distribution of water purification tablets is part of Oxfam’s emergency response in Petite Riviere, an area in Artibonite with a population of about 100,000. The organization is also supplying people with oral rehydration salts and soap. It now has a team of 25 staffers on the ground and is working in close cooperation with the mayor, who has offered the support of 80 local social workers who Oxfam can train to help with a public education campaign on good hygiene practices. During the weekend, Oxfam began broadcasting hygiene messages on the radio in an effort to reach the entire population of Petite Riviere.
“We are training Haitians to get the preventive messages out there to as many as possible,” said Rapheal Mutiku, Oxfam’s water and sanitation advisor. “The aid community is working closely with local groups, provincial leaders and mayors to combat this disease. It’s very encouraging to see everyone coming together to help out, working around the clock to stop the spread. Cholera is a very dangerous disease, but it can be contained.”