Aid groups warn of more 'unnecessary deaths' in Haiti as cholera outbreak threatens

Haitians with symptoms of cholera are treated in a hospital in Jérémie, southwest Haiti on Oct 13, 2016 on Thursday (Orlando Barria, EPA).jpg

Haitians with symptoms of cholera are treated in a hospital in Jérémie, southwest Haiti on Oct 13, 2016 on Thursday (Orlando Barria, EPA)

By Nika Knight, staff writer, Common Dreams, Oct 14, 2016

As death toll from Hurricane Matthew reaches 1,000 with almost 800 people missing, aid agencies warn that Haiti may be struck by fresh cholera outbreak.

Cholera is rapidly spreading in Haiti in the wake of Hurricane Matthew and the country will be struck by another outbreak of the devastating disease if a massive effort isn't launched to prevent it, aid agencies warn.

"In its wake, the hurricane left pools of stagnant water, overflowing rivers and dead bodies—creating a breeding ground for the waterborne disease," the Guardian wrote Friday.

"There will be many more cases of cholera, and unnecessary deaths, all across areas affected by the hurricane if large-scale cholera treatment and prevention response doesn’t reach them immediately," Conor Shapiro, president and CEO of the St Boniface Haiti Foundation, told the Guardian.

The newspaper explains the dire situation—one especially tragic given the history of cholera in Haiti:

In the worst-hit regions, efforts to deliver water treatment equipment have been hampered by debris that still blocks roads. And even those places that have received support have reported "huge" shortages of clean drinking water, forcing people to drink stormwater, said Beatrice Lindstrom, staff attorney at the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti (IJDH). "It's a race against time," she said.

Lindstrom's group has led a campaign to hold the U.N. accountable for its role in the cholera outbreak that hit nine months after the January 2010 earthquake. The disease was previously unknown in Haiti, and overwhelming evidence suggests that it was introduced to the country by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal.

More than 9,200 people have since died from cholera and more than 769,000 have been treated in hospitals for the disease—and Lindstrom said that the hurricane has prompted fears of a fresh epidemic.

"In the first month after cholera broke out, after the earthquake, a thousand people were impacted," Lindstrom told the Guardian. "We're really afraid that the same thing will happen in this situation—it just seems like access to water is already so, so limited."

As part of an international effort to combat the disease, the World Health Organization is sending 1 million cholera vaccines to Haiti, while the U.N.—still under fire for causing the 2010 outbreak—announced Thursday that it is deploying a medical team to treat new cholera cases.

The cholera outbreak adds another dimension to the disastrous effects of the hurricane, the worst natural disaster in Haiti since the 2010 earthquake that claimed the lives of over 220,000. Haitians are already facing the prospect of mass starvation as a result of widespread crop failure from the hurricane, in addition to the destruction of whole villages.

"Some towns and villages have been almost wiped off the map," U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon told reporters. "Tensions are already mounting as people await help. A massive response is required."

"But amid these concerns about food and shelter, the threat of contaminated water reigns," the Guardian observes. 

IJDH's Lindstrom said: "It really does seem like this is one of the most urgent situations that’s facing people after the hurricane."

"The reports we're getting from the ground so far are pretty horrific," Lindstrom added. "There are still a number of towns that are completely cut off from aid because they are so inaccessible by road and even the ones who are slowly getting aid in, there is a huge shortage of potable water."

Hunger, thirst and the spectre of cholera amid hurricane devastation

By Sylvia Thomson, CBC News, Oct 13, 2016  (see photo gallery at CBC weblink)

Cholera, an issue since the 2010 earthquake, threatens to increase anew

In southwest Haiti - Driving along the Haiti coast west of Les Cayes, town after town reveals increasing levels of devastation and desperation. 

It's not surprising that a convoy of 25 aid trucks headed for this region Tuesday night was held up by a mob brandishing big sticks. West of Marcabee, a hilltop assembly of homes and tiny shops, two white aid trucks are parked and a swarm of around 100 people have gathered, hoping to get some food. 

The backs of the trucks slide open to reveal rice, oil and beans – the boxes of soybean oil marked with the World Food Program logos and clearly stamped "Gift from Canada."

Watching over it all is Larousse Ceus, with the public health division of the Haitian government. He's working on the distribution of food, but also on cholera prevention, which he says is another challenge, especially in small villages that are completely cut off. 

"There will be crisis and outbreaks around various areas," said Ceus. "Some places have their water cut off and only have access to contaminated water. The water systems are not working in a lot of small villages that are completely cut off with no road access." 

His staff are wearing T-shirts with the creole words "Kolera Toujou La" to remind people that "Cholera is still around," so they should be careful.

One particularly Haitian aspect to the health outreach challenge here, according to Ceus, is that "Haitians have an intimate relationship with their dead. They wash them, they embrace them, so they have a very high chance of contacting cholera from them." 

'Whatever water they can find'

Further west along the coast, in Port-à-Piment, Médecins Sans Frontières has taken over the management of the cholera cases and its staff is busy trying to sequester them so they aren't mixing with the general hospital population.    

Jean Daniel LaGuerre, an MSF doctor from Port-au-Prince, is in charge. He's treating 67 patients with cholera and feels he has it under control at the hospital, but worries about what is going on in the seaside community outside the hospital doors. 

"We don't know what's happening on the community level for distribution of cholera and drinkable water." 

When asked what the people in town drink, he answers: "Whatever water they can find." 

And he worries that some other kind of epidemic could break out in this region of Haiti.