Aid agencies struggle to combat deadly disease

What do you do when there are no latrines and the street is an open sewer? When you can't afford soap to ward off germs, or coal to boil the infected water? What do you do when the only water available is water that will kill you? This is the situation in Haiti right now.

Haiti, a country already crippled with political instability, poor infrastructure and crushing poverty before the January 2010 earthquake, is now locked in a life and death struggle with cholera�"a disease not seen in the country for almost a century. Cholera is a water-borne infection that causes death in as little as six hours, by rapid dehydration.

The cholera outbreak began in October 2010, and since then the official cholera death toll in Haiti has reached 3,000 and continues to climb with 160,000 reported cases, according to a report in the Ottawa Citizen.

The average Haitian lacks access to clean water and basic sanitation. According to International Child Care Canada, 29 per cent of Haiti's population has no access to potable water, and those who do find it comes with a high price�"either in the hours walked to acquire it or in money. Lutheran World Relief reports that 78 per cent of Haiti's population lives on less than two dollars a day.

Aid workers feared a cholera outbreak after the earthquake, so when the disease appeared Samaritan's Purse was ready. “We shut down all our other operations and focused on cholera," says Martin Silbernagle, communication advisor for Samaritan's Purse Canada. “That was the focus of all our work in Haiti, to stop the outbreak and treat the people who have been affected."

Joany McDougall, a trauma nurse from Ingersoll, Ontario, and Stacey Brown, an ER nurse from London, Ontario, spent time in the Bercy cholera clinic operated by Samaritan's Purse. “Both of us have seen people come in on death's door to the hospital, but not from dehydration," says Joany. “This is completely different...It steals their dignity."

On her first day at the Bercy cholera clinic, Brown watched a man go from optimistic to desiring death in a matter of two hours. “Then I knew what I was in for," she says. “[Haitians] call it the lightning killer because of how fast it takes you."

Medical personnel like McDougall and Brown faced tough challenges. Armed security and shallow trenches surround the community of blue Samaritan's Purse tents, and cleaning crews work around the clock sweeping the clay floors, emptying the constantly-full buckets used by patients too weak to reach the latrines. Staff pause to pray against the voodoo ceremonies heard outside the perimeter, Stacey Brown. “We always referred to it as a battle."

Samaritan's Purse believes it's a battle they're winning. Every patient receives a cholera prevention pamphlet�"an information strategy many NGO's in Haiti have adopted. “People are learning quickly and gaining an understanding of what it takes to stop cholera. We expect the number of cholera patients to dip dramatically in the coming weeks," says Silbernagle. Only time will tell as the disease continues to spread.

One year after the earthquake, the best way to help is through prayer and by donating to established non-government organizations with an existing infrastructure in Haiti who can get help to the people who need it most. Cholera is 100 per cent preventable and with the right treatment, curable.

“The situation is bleak, cholera is bleak, but there's so much hope," says Brown. “They're such a resilient people, but I'm tired of them having to be a resilient people. There's so much hope in those tents and in that country...I see Haiti's potential to be something beautiful."

Dear Readers:

ChristianWeek relies on your generous support. please take a minute and donate to help give voice to stories that inform, encourage and inspire.

Donations of $20 or more will receive a charitable receipt.
Thank you, from Christianweek.

About the author