Oxfam began distributing water tablets, rehydration salts, and soap Sunday to 25,000 people to help combat a cholera outbreak in Haiti’s Artibonite and Central Plateau regions north of Port-au-Prince. The outbreak has now claimed more than 200 lives and sickened more than 2,600 people.
Five cases have also been reported in Port-au-Prince, the capital, where many people displaced by the January 12 earthquake are now living in crowded camps. But aid workers say those five patients contracted the disease while in Artibonite and that it did not originate in the capital.
“We are obviously concerned about the spread of cholera to Port-au-Prince,” said Raphael Mutiku. “However, earthquake victims living in and around the capital have better access to clean water, latrines, and better knowledge of good hygiene practices than in rural areas. We have been doing ongoing educational sessions in dozens of camps ever since the earthquake struck.”
Oxfam sent an advance team of five public health experts to the affected region on Friday and has now expanded their ranks to 20, with more to follow. The team is distributing emergency supplies and setting up a water, sanitation, and hygiene education program in the region of Petite Riviere, where about 100,000 people live.
"We are working as quickly as possible to stop the spread of cholera,” said Mutiku. “This is a very preventable and treatable disease. The goal is to stop the spread in the region of Petite Riviere by Wednesday.”
Cholera is a diarrheal disease caused by consuming food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae, Though very treatable with oral rehydration salts, it can kill within a matter of hours if severely sick patients don’t get prompt care.
Aid workers are concerned about the virulence of this particular strain of cholera and warn that there could be more cases in the coming days. However, the disease is also highly preventable: washing hands with soap before eating and after going to the bathroom, boiling drinking water, and eating only cooked food are essential to stemming the spread of cholera.
"Our hygiene messages are already reaching tens of thousands on the local radio,” said Mutiku. “As soon as appropriate prevention programs like these are put in place, we can very quickly control its spread."
Though the cause of the outbreak in Artibonite is not yet known, the area, like much of Haiti, suffers from lack of access to clean water and decent sanitation services—leaving people vulnerable.
Oxfam, which is working in close coordination with the government of Haiti, will likely continue with its cholera response for at least three months to ensure that no secondary outbreaks occur and that good basic hygiene practices are firmly in place.