Health Care Workers Brace for New Cholera Outbreaks in Haiti

November 2, 2012

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Hurricane Sandy might have saved its fullest fury for America’s mid-Atlantic coast, but its earlier blows in the Caribbean wreaked havoc in Haiti.

Already struggling to recover from the effects of Hurricane Isaac in August, which in turn set back rebuilding from the earthquake of January 2010, Haiti now faces renewed crises on multiple fronts.

“The economy took a huge hit,” Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe told the Reuters news agency. “Most of the agricultural crops that were left from Hurricane Isaac were destroyed during Sandy, so food security will be an issue.”

In Haiti, at least 54 people died from the hurricane. Much of the damage from Sandy occurred in the rural south of this nation of 9 million. Subsistence farmers saw both crops and reserves wiped out by three days of torrential rains, something the government fears could once again trigger a spike in food prices and the widespread social unrest that has usually followed it in recent years.

In Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, where hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims remain displaced in crowded tent camps, health care workers are bracing for a resurgence of cholera.

A child is treated in a cholera ward at San Luc Hospital in Tabarre, just outside Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Photo by Nicole See for the NewsHour.

Haiti’s cholera epidemic began two years ago. The bacterium is spread by fecal-oral contact. The epidemic was most likely caused by sewage discharged from a camp housing U.N. peacekeeping soldiers from Nepal into the Artibonite River, a source of drinking water for many Haitians who have no access to treated water.

Cholera had not been seen here in almost a century, and it blindsided health workers as much as its terrified patients.

“We didn’t know the first thing about cholera except what we could Google,” said Rick Frechette, a Catholic priest and physician recalled from those early days almost exactly two years ago.

To date, cholera, which causes severe diarrhea and fluid loss, has killed nearly 7,500 Haitians and sickened another 600,000. Now, floodwaters from Sandy have again churned up the cholera bug, contaminating drinking water supplies and further hindering access for many — especially those in tent camps and remote areas — to safe sources of water and sanitation. The government has reported eight suspected cholera deaths post-Sandy.

At treatment centers, admissions have spiked. They’ve doubled at San Luc Hospital on the city’s northern outskirts, which has treated 36,000 patients since 2010.

The hospital took in about 20 new patients each day in October until Oct. 26, the day Sandy’s impact peaked here. There have been nearly 40 daily admissions ever since. Fortunately, most will make a full recovery.

With massive publicity campaigns on billboards, radio and television, most people are aware of cholera’s symptoms, so patients are brought in much earlier for care. Cholera is easily treated with antibiotics if they are administered early. As a result, mortality rates are now less than 1 percent, well below what they were two years ago.

Still, the fact that so many come down with cholera despite the awareness might be an indicator that safe water and sanitation remain elusive to many people.

The new epidemic might be less deadly than the first one, but it’s both a distraction from and a proxy for the enormous task post-quake Haiti faces to rebuild itself virtually from scratch.

Related Resource: More reports from Haiti, two years after the earthquake

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