Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Other Shoe

It's been two weeks since I returned from Port-au-Prince.  I've been using the term "grim" to describe conditions there.  As the official tropical storm/hurricane season draws to a close next week, the sigh of relief I've been waiting to exhale is on hold.  Instead of a threat from hurricane force winds and flooding and mudslides, the 1.3 million residents of tent camps face a cholera epidemic.

Ansel Herz of Inter Press News reports that heath workers are scrambling to bar cholera from the crowded camps in and around Port-au-Prince.  As of yesterday, at least 160 people have died in the central Artibonite region, according to Zanmi Lasante, the Haitian arm of Partners in Health.

Cholera, a waterborne bacterium, stands to devastate the camps by contaminating the drinking supply.  The Haitian government says that the bacterium can incubate in the human body for days and rapidly cause death by dehydration.  Spokespersons from the Pan American Health Organization said Friday that laboratory tests had confirmed the outbreak.

Acting like generals responding to an invasion by hostile forces, authorities have sped medical personnel to St. Marc, about 70 kilometers north of Port-au-Prince, where a single hospital is overwhelmed with cholera patients.  Villagers from remote areas are sprawled on the floors, intravenous lines in their arms.  In the meantime, patients queue up outside the gates.

In a blog post by Partners in Health Chief Medical Officer Joia Mukherjee called cholera "a disease of poverty" (80 percent of Haitians live in poverty).  She asserted that loans from the Inter-American Development Bank meant for the development of a public water supply in the affected region were blocked on political grounds during the tenure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

The background section of the the PIH website, relates how the "dire" public health situation in recent years was worsened by a U.S.-backed embargo against the elected government of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and then by the coup that drove him from office.  Further, "dismal health outcomes are especially pronounced in Haiti's rural interior, where deforestation, erosion, and lack of infrastructure have crippled the agricultural economy."  The region supports only 10 percent of the population, but they are the poorest people in the nation, a condition that makes them a perfect target for cholera.

The disease is transmitted by drinking water contaminated by the feces of infected persons.  Only ten percent of those drinking such contaminated water come down with the disease.

Back in the capital of Port-au-Prince, Herz reports that it is not clear that prevention measures have been implemented.  Mark Snyder, a development worker with International Action Ties, has not seen "any general information distributed on the streets or in the camps at this time."  Snyder pointed out that the U.N. peacekeepers patrol the streets to provide security, not to supply information.

So, while smaller storms have harassed the camp residents, the feared hurricane season is taking second place to the specter of a cholera epidemic.

What can you do to help?  Organize an event to show solidarity with the Haitian people.  Donate to Partners in Health, or Konpay,, a Haitian organization that "builds networks and collaborations so that technology and expertise can be shared and used to strengthen Haitian solutions to social, environmental and economic problems."

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