Getting the word out on cholera

Haiti, October 29, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Ben Depp for Mercy Corps  </span>
    Mercy Corps' Venio Dupont shows children at a school in Mirebalais, Haiti, how to wash their hands as part of a public information campaign to teach local residents about how to prevent and treat cholera. The hospital in Mirebalais has seen 800 suspected cases of cholera in the last six days. Photo: Ben Depp for Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps  </span>
    An example of the type of public information going out by text message. This message didn't show who the sender was, but both the American Red Cross and the International Organization for Migration currently have cholera text campaigns. Photo: Lisa Hoashi/Mercy Corps
  <span class="field-credit">
    Ben Depp for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The truck has a generator and sound speaker system! Participants in Mercy Corps's cash for work program gather for a short briefing on measures they can take to prevent the transmission of cholera and what they should do if they or someone in their community starts exhibiting symptoms of cholera. Chauvette, Central Plateau, Haiti. Photo: Ben Depp for Mercy Corps

For the last two days I've been out with Mercy Corps' Haiti team, which has been visiting communities in both Port-au-Prince and the Center Department to ensure they have the information they need about cholera: how to prevent it and treat it.

In Port-au-Prince, I went with our team to two camps, where most people told me they had heard of the disease but had heard only a little information on how it was transmitted. One woman told me that she had received messages on her phone about it — and it's true, this is a great aid technology application that I've seen on my own Voila phone. Text messages as public service announcements (PSAs) that tell me to wash my hands before I eat, and to make sure to treat questionable water, or to seek medical attention immediately for vomiting and diarrhea.

At a different camp, a man talked about how putting food in plastic containers could give you cholera, which just wasn't true. Dispelling rumors and correcting misinformation is also part of our team's job.

So the Mercy Corps team rounded everyone up, got out the megaphone and went through the basics on cholera. They took questions. They distributed vouchers for clean water, as they do at the camps every week, and they handed out soap. And then they continued to the next camp.

I didn't see them return to the office until dark. There is definitely urgency to their work. As of yet, there have only been five confirmed cases of cholera in Port-au-Prince, and they were all of people who have been to the affected areas where the epidemic began, in the Artibonite and Center departments. Currently there are no confirmed cases of cholera that were contracted in the capital, and everyone is working to prepare for that possibility.

Cholera is very serious in a place as dense as Port-au-Prince. The conditions here would make it difficult to contain. Just last night a massive rainstorm hit the city, and in minutes there were swift rivers of brown, trash-filled water coursing down the streets.

Today, I went to see our teams working out of Mirebalais, a city in the Central Plateau. Over the weekend, its hospital was overwhelmed with the sick and the dying. They have seen more than 800 suspected cholera cases in the last six days. The rural communities where we work here are remote, and very poor.

We visited two communities that were participating in our cash-for-work program. We're employing them to repair the road that leads out of their community. Most of the participating families have taken in earthquake survivors from Port-au-Prince and the wages they earn help them support their expanded households.

At both places, community members had heard of people getting sick, but they didn't know what it was, how it was transmitted, or how to prevent it. Venio Dupont, who oversees our cash-for-work program, says that before Mercy Corps arrives with information, "People don't know anything about cholera, except that it kills. They've heard about the deaths on the radio, they're scared. But after they hear the information we have, they feel comforted because the solution seems simple enough."

For these communities, prevention is key. But so also is the simple message that if someone is vomiting and having diarrhea, to get them to the hospital fast. Cholera can kill in a couple of hours, and many of these people live far from a hospital and would need to borrow a horse or spend valuable funds on a tap-tap (a pick-up truck taxi) to get there.

We also made it out to a couple of schools to share the information with the kids before class ended for the day. We had some student volunteers come up to show everyone how to wash their hands. Kids are a really important group to train because you know they take that home and start telling their parents and siblings what to do. A kid with knowledge is a powerful thing!

This epidemic has been hard on everyone in Haiti — citizens and aid workers alike. It's a terrible blow on top of all the work that is yet to be done to help the country rebuild from the earthquake. For now, getting people this life-saving information is our first priority.