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Wednesday, April 7, 2010 as of 11:14 AM ET

Health

Kathleen Foster

New York

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Haiti One Year Later: The Cholera Crisis

January 10, 2011 - 10:33 AM | by: Kathleen Foster

When it struck, it struck hard and fast… rattling surprised Haitians.

“They called it a supernatural disease,” Carolyn Weinrobe, an epidemiologist at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Des Chappelles, Haiti, explains, “People died so quickly. They immediately became so dehydrated that within 12 hours they could be dead.”

Cholera ward at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Des Chappelles, Haiti

Cholera Ward at Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Des Chappelles, Haiti

Haiti’s first case of Cholera was confirmed in October, not far from the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Haiti’s lower Artibonite Valley, north of Port-au-Prince. Since then, according to a United Nations count, more than 3600 people have died and more than 170,000 have gotten sick.

Severely dehydrated patients require fluids via IV

Margaret Aguirre from the International Medical Corps says that number could more than double by this time next year.

“It is estimated that there could be approximately 400,000 cases of Cholera in Haiti in the next 10 months. That’s why it is critical we focus on community education regarding simple prevention measures, how to recognize symptoms, and the need to seek treatment right away.”

Beds with holes in the middle are used for patients with uncontrollable diarrhea

The symptoms are severe vomiting and diarrhea.  The key to prevention is frequent hand washing using soap and chlorine-treated water.  However, considering Haiti has no proper sewage system and its rural population has always simply collected water straight from their rivers, canals, and wells getting people to use water purification tablets is easier said than done.

Children collect water in the Artibonite River, where the cholera outbreak is believed to have started

After treating and releasing Cholera patients, Albert Schweitzer Hospital’s community outreach programs follow up with patients at their homes, making sure they do not re-infect themselves.

Carolyn Weinrobe watches as a 72-year-old Cholera survivor soaps up her hands and then shakes them dry.

“We want them to shake because if they’re dirty and they wipe their hands on their dirty clothes, it’s going to reverse all the good that happened when they washed their hands.”

The old woman lives with 34 of her family members, and so far she is the only one who has contracted the disease, a sign Weinrobe’s message is hitting home.

“I give this family an A-plus,” she says.

The strain of Cholera contaminating the country is one never before seen in Haiti.  Many blame its introduction on UN peacekeepers from Nepal whose base is in the Artibonite Valley. But, epidemiologists like Weinrobe say how the outbreak started doesn’t matter.

“I don’t honestly care who brought cholera here in the first place.”

The organization Doctors Without Borders has treated nearly 100,000 cholera patients since the outbreak began. Its busiest clinic in Port-au-Prince sees 50 to 60 new patients a day. Sylvain Groulx, the head of the Doctors Without Borders mission in Haiti says as long as the most of the country has no proper plumbing, Cholera is most likely here to stay.

“It probably will never be eliminated until there is a proper infrastructure relating to water and sanitation. Once people have access to clean, safe drinking water and have proper sewers, that will eliminate it.”