(Photo: AP Photo / Ramon Espinosa)
Authorities in Haiti say the deadly cholera epidemic there is slowing down, but many people are still at risk, report aid groups working in the area.
"The situation is beginning to stabilize,” Health Ministry Director Gabriel Timothee said at a news conference Monday. “Since yesterday we have registered only six new deaths."
To date, the cholera outbreak has killed more than 250 people and infected over 3,000. The bacterial infection that causes cholera reportedly contaminated the water supply in north and central Haiti.
Since the outbreak was made known, aid groups and the government have been racing to prevent it from spreading to the capital, Port-au-Prince, where many survivors of the Jan. 12 earthquake still live in camps.
One group, World Vision, responded to Haiti's cholera outbreak by sending urgently-needed medical supplies to treat the sick and support already overstretched hospitals and clinics. The Christian relief group – one of the largest in the world – also transported hundreds of liters of rehydration fluids, water treatments, medicines and hospital supplies to the Central Plateau last Thursday.
“Early reports indicate that many of the casualties showed few symptoms and, in some cases, died within 24 to 48 hours," noted Dr. Estrella Serrano, World Vision's emergency response health and nutrition manager, in a report. "If the epidemic makes its way to Port-au-Prince, where children and families are living in unsanitary, overcrowded camps, the results could be disastrous."
According to World Vision's program director in Port-au-Prince, Sabrina Pourmand Nolen, malnourished children, people living with HIV and AIDS and the elderly are the most vulnerable in the affected areas.
As simple measures like hand washing can save lives, World Vision and other aid groups are coaching thousands of impoverished families how best to avoid cholera.
“It is important to interrupt the infection chain,” said Dr. Joost Butenhop, health advisor to Caritas Germany, one of the Caritas organizations working in Haiti. “Cholera needs to be detected, affected people need to receive treatment and awareness has to be raised among the population. Clean drinking water and washing hands regularly are absolutely essential where cholera is concerned.”
Notably, cholera is transmitted through bacteria in contaminated food and water. The disease causes severe vomiting and diarrhea which leads to dehydration.
World Vision's health manager in Port-au-Prince, Dr. Reginald Lubin, noted how the bacterial infection can cause people to lose more than 30 liters of fluid in a single day.
"If this hits our camps, we are going to need a lot of support,” he reported.
As of Monday, government officials said no cases have originated in Port-au-Prince, where authorities fear abysmal hygiene, poor sanitation and widespread poverty could rapidly spread the disease through the sprawling tent slums erected after the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Robyn Fieser, a spokeswoman for Catholic Relief Services, told The Associated Press she was confident that aid groups and the Haitian government will be prepared to respond to an outbreak should it occur in the camps. But she stressed that the challenge of preventing its spread is "immense."
Some health experts were hopeful that they will be able to control the outbreak of cholera in impoverished Haiti. Already groups such as Caritas and World Vision have been conducting a mass distribution of soap in Port-au-Prince. The groups are also preparing to boost hygiene levels in camps and are developing public awareness messages that put emphasis on the risks of cholera and how to prevent it.
"With an outbreak like this, we must react immediately,” remarked Theo Huitema, the manager of World Vision's water, sanitation and hygiene program in Haiti.
“[H]ygiene promotion and soap are two of the most crucial prevention measures you can implement quickly and effectively to prevent more deaths," he added.
To respond effectively and efficiently, aid groups have been coordinating their efforts with the Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, and other agencies.
"Quick identification and treatment is vital to containing the outbreak," said World Vision's Nolen.