IRC pushes prevention and hygiene in fight against Haiti’s cholera epidemic
An oral rehydration kiosk in Cite Cabrit camp in Martissant. The International Rescue Committee has constructed and installed a kiosk in 29 camps to act as a distribution point for oral rehydration salts, which are vital in the treatment of any case of severe diarrhea. (Photo: Susana Ferreira/The IRC)
The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is mounting a major effort to call attention to the critical role basic sanitation and hygiene can play in curbing the spread of a devastating cholera epidemic that is killing dozens of people in Haiti every day.
“Prevention is the cornerstone in curbing any major outbreak of disease,” said Melody Munz, coordinator of the IRC’s environmental health program in Haiti. “We cannot over-emphasize the importance of hygiene.”
The IRC has hired 60 people to clean and sanitize latrines and toilets in the 30 camps for displaced people it serves in Port-au-Prince, while a network of more than 150 community hygiene promoters is carrying out an aggressive public information campaign that encourages washing hands with soap, drinking only chlorinated water, cooking food thoroughly, and going to the bathroom in toilets and latrines to prevent the spread of bacteria. “Rule number one in curbing an outbreak,” Munz said, is “don’t get sick.”
With the scope of the epidemic growing daily, avoiding contact with the bacteria is becoming increasingly difficult. The death toll has reached 1,100 with 18,382 people treated for cholera or symptoms of the disease, according to the Haitian government. Haitian and international health experts agree that the outbreak has still not reached its peak and that it may take months, or even years, to contain.
Cholera is a water-borne disease that is passed through fecal matter. When the bacteria are ingested, it can quickly cause acute diarrhea, vomiting and dehydration. Cholera is easily treatable through rapid rehydration—the second line of defense in the IRC’s battle against the disease.
“Prevention is the cornerstone in curbing any major outbreak of disease,” says Melody Munz (left), the IRC’s environmental health program coordinator in Haiti. (Photo: Melissa Winkler/The IRC)
The IRC has installed rehydration kiosks in 29 camps staffed by community hygiene promoters trained to monitor symptoms, distribute oral rehydration salts, and prepare homemade versions of a rehydration serum using sugar and salt. The goal is to keep those who do get ill from becoming severely ill. So far, over 1,900 camp residents have been treated for acute diarrhea.
A special cholera response team, headed by Dr. Tahlil Ahmed, is closely monitoring the situation in each camp on a daily basis and making note of suspected cases, camp conditions and community concerns. Dr. Ahmed emphasized the importance of treating any form of diarrhea with immediate hydration, and expressed worry over patients that are not being detected or seeking treatment.
“There may be many others staying at home and not seeking out the kiosks because of the stigma,” Dr. Ahmed said. “The family may use traditional medicine, they die at home, and the infection continues.”
In the coming weeks the IRC plans to widen the scope of its monitoring in each camp, continue to chlorinate water and distribute oral rehydration salts, and push cholera education and basic hygiene methods that are crucial in the fight against this preventable disease.