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A new Haiti emergency: Cholera

Haiti, October 25, 2010

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I arrived to Haiti last week in time to see another emergency unfold: people dying with symptoms that pointed to cholera — diarrhea and vomiting leading to severe dehydration.

As of today, the cholera epidemic has killed at least 208 and sickened 2,646 in Haiti's Artibonite and Center departments, just outside of Port-au-Prince. It's tragic. It's a hard blow for a country still struggling to recover from the massive January earthquake.

Last Friday, government and aid agencies mobilized to increase medical services and sanitation to the affected areas to save lives and prevent the spread of the disease. In coordination with them, Mercy Corps has launched its own emergency response to help stem the spread of the disease and ensure families have the information they need to prevent and treat cholera.

Cholera, if left untreated, can cause death within several hours. It mostly spreads through contaminated water and food supplies, so it poses a particular threat to people living in areas where clean water and sanitation are not readily available — which is the situation of many of Haiti's poor rural communities and also of the hundred of thousands of earthquake survivors living in camps in Port-au-Prince.

If there's any good news, it's that the epidemic hasn't reached Port-au-Prince. Everyone is doing what they can to prevent it from getting here.

Also, cholera is preventable and easily treatable. It's all about washing your hands after using the bathroom and before eating, and it's about staying hydrated if you get diarrhea. With cholera, usually the cause of death is dehydration.

Lives can be saved with access to clean water—and with access to information. These two things are what Mercy Corps' response is focused on. We're responding in both the affected city of Mirebalais, in Haiti's Central Plateau, and also preventatively in Port-au-Prince, just in case the epidemic arrives here.

Our activities to date:

  • Provided 30 mattresses to the Mirebalais hospital to address a desperate shortage as many of their existing mattresses were infected and had to be burned. Over the last several days, this hospital has been treating 600 suspected cases of cholera.
  • Delivered 138 hygiene kits (containing soap, detergent and other health supplies) to the Mirebalais prison. There are 80 suspected cases of cholera in this prison.
  • Launching a public information campaign to reach Mirebalais and surrounding communities with information about how to prevent cholera and treat dehydration with a simple rehydration solution of sugar, salt and water.

  • Working to deploy two to four water purification units that can each provide up to 6,800 gallons of potable water a day to cholera-affected areas. We hope to install these units for general community use in Mirebalais and also at the local hospital.
  • Distributing soap to families living in camps in Port-au-Prince and disseminating information about how to prevent cholera with good hygiene practices and treat it with oral rehydration solution. Today, we delivered supplies and information to 153 families and expect to reach many more in the coming week.
  • Continuing to provide water and sanitation services to 25 camps in Port-au-Prince.

Over the last nine months, we have assisted 23,500 people with clean water, latrines, showers, and hygiene information and supplies – and we'll continue these services through the crisis.