Lack of accurate information complicating aid response to Haiti cholera epidemic
Across Haiti, protests - at times violent - have slowed efforts to establish cholera treatment units. In the absence of information indicating otherwise, many people believe these small, localised treatment centres will increase the spread of cholera in their community. In reality, the closer an infected person is to a treatment centre, the better the chances of survival.
The children's charity has launched a huge public awareness campaign to increase understanding on the cause and spread of the disease.
"It will be extremely challenging to beat back this cholera epidemic without giving people a better understanding of where the real risks lie and the best ways to avoid them. As it is, fear and misperceptions are driving a lot of counterproductive actions," said Gary Shaye, country director of Save the Children in Haiti.
Save the Children is educating communities about the benefits of cholera treatment units and on measures to prevent further contamination - limiting the spread of the disease is a chief priority for all treatment units. For instance, in order to enter or leave a treatment facility, people must disinfect their hands and their shoes with chlorine-based disinfectant.
Over the next six months, Save the Children aims to reach 600,000 people through education outreach together with activities and supplies to help prevent cholera. This will help stem the current epidemic, while also helping to prevent future ones. Before the recent outbreak, cholera had not been present in Haiti for decades. The public knew little about the disease and local medical professionals knew little about identifying it or treating it.
Save the Children has already started teaching families, community leaders, and health workers the links between sanitation, waste and the spread of cholera, as well as explaining the effectiveness of hand washing, boiling water and getting medical advice at the first signs of illness. The children's charity will again be ramping up the distribution of hygiene kits that contain soap, aquatabs to treat water and oral rehydration solution to prevent dehydration in patients before they're able to reach treatment units. These are often out of reach for poor families, especially those living in camps for earthquake survivors that already face sanitation challenges.
The appearance of cholera in Haiti highlights the extreme vulnerability of children and families who are still trying to cope with the damaging effects of an earthquake that struck nearly one year ago. Less than one quarter of Haitians have access to adequate sanitation, and most do not have access to clean water. In addition, overcrowded slums, other urban areas, and camps where 1.3 million earthquake affected internally displaced people are staying provide ideal conditions for cholera to spread.
"This outbreak clearly shows that without long-term investments in water and sanitation, cholera and other preventable diseases will remain an ongoing problem for the Haitian population," Gary Shaye said. "While we must act quickly to address cholera, we also must remain focused on fulfilling commitments to build back a better Haiti. We can't afford to take our eyes off one crisis for another."
Since the cholera outbreak occurred in mid-October, Save the Children has treated 610 cases of cholera and has reached close to 12,000 households through hygiene-promotion activities.
Save the Children has worked in Haiti for 30 years and has reached over 870,000 people with earthquake relief and recovery since the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010. Of these, 340,000 people have already benefited from Save the Children's clean water, sanitation and hygiene activities that can help prevent cholera infection.