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Cholera's ever-present threat

Haiti, December 12, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Louis Erivene, the local leader of the rural Lasienne zone, is helping connect Mercy Corps to remote communities to spread messages on how to prevent cholera and distribute water-purification tablets. Photo: Lindsay Murphy/Mercy Corps

Cholera has become an everyday reality in Haiti. It’s not something we see in the U.S., but people in countries without reliably clean water can acquire this nasty intestinal infection, which can be fatal if left untreated. Its prevalence in Haiti has dropped by two-thirds since the fall 2010 outbreak, but it remains a large, looming public-health threat. And it won’t be eradicated until Haiti has a better sanitation system in place.

That’s why Mercy Corps is still working in Port-au-Prince and in the countryside to teach better hygiene practices and ensure that people have drinkable water.

In the Central Plateau, the team conducts lessons on how to identify cholera symptoms, what are good hygiene practices and how to make the water they collect potable. On the day I accompanied a distribution of Aquatabs — little effervescent tablets which kill the microorganisms that cause cholera — the team distributed a month’s supply to 1,287 families. This marked a new daily record for us with enough to purify 257,400 gallons of water!

We traveled dirt roads in the La Sienne zone, to villages with no electricity where families live in one-room homes. Some were made of stone and concrete, others out of mud and thatch.

Accompanying us was Louis Erivene, the 52-year-old elected leader of La Sienne. At one stop, he gathered the community together and used a loudspeaker to urge them to heed the instructions of our team to stay healthy. At another, he helped distribute the Aquatabs to families and made sure people understood how to use them.

He later spoke to me about how cholera affects his community.

Can you tell me about what the cholera situation is like in the La Sienne zone?
The first time cholera was seen here, people didn’t know what it was and just thought others were really sick to their stomach. As the number of cases began to grow, people started to get scared. It got to the point that people wouldn’t even buy things from those sick with cholera. There was a lot of discrimination. After time, cholera was everywhere in my community and people realized we are together in this fight against the disease.

Has anyone in your family gotten cholera?
Yes, my sister-in-law. She started to feel very sick while at the local market, but was able to take a taxi to a local healthcare center quickly enough to receive the proper treatment. Fortunately, she survived. Sometimes though, taxis refuse to take people sick with cholera because of the fear of getting infected.

How is your community getting help to prevent cholera?
We had received some aid and services from the local government at first, and the number of cases of cholera began to decrease. However, Mercy Corps came in later with a stronger effort, and was able to cover larger areas. If Mercy Corps leaves, I worry the people will get sick again.

What happens in areas even further away from here, where a car cannot reach?
Sadly, sometimes people who get cholera in those areas die because they can’t get to a hospital fast enough. Sometimes when it rains, the river floods and makes it impossible for people to get to the hospital in time. I was glad to see that Mercy Corps has made an effort to reach these communities. It is important that those faraway get access to the information and water disinfectant Mercy Corps distributes.

What do you hope for in terms of your community?
I hope that people are able to drink clean water. The rainy season is a difficult time, and I hope that we can help improve the health of people here and limit those that get sick with cholera.