As Haiti continues to count its dead and assess damage following devastating Hurricane Matthew, doctors and public health officers warn the risk of cholera must urgently be addressed.
Unprecedented flooding, particularly in the hard-hit southwestern peninsula, has contaminated already-scarce safe drinking water, drastically increasing the risk of a cholera outbreak. Once contracted, dehydration caused by cholera can kill children in as quickly as six hours.
"Essentially, the battle against cholera is sometimes a race against time," said Dr. Unni Krishnan of Save the Children. "It’s a very fast killer and we need to act quickly."
Dr. Krishnan has worked around Haiti for 10 years, traveling to wherever he is most needed. He is currently working in Les Cayes, the city the hardest hit last week by Hurricane Matthew.
"When you come to some of the impacted areas you realize how bad the situation is," he told VOA. "It’s something which can never be truly captured in words or pictures."
Contaminated drinking water
Contamination of drinking water is far from the only thing increasing the risk of cholera throughout Haiti.
Among many others, Dr. Krishnan said a lack of privacy due to destroyed homes has resulted in women breast feeding less often, and breast milk is a powerful natural antidote to cholera for infants.
Cholera is treatable, and the most common and dangerous symptom is dehydration. But lack of infrastructure and hospitals, made worse by the hurricane damage, could make combating an epidemic difficult for Haiti.
"For context, we are talking about a country with one of the weakest health systems in this part of the world," Dr. Krishnan said, emphasizing that many medical centers were destroyed or rendered non-functional due to the storm damage.
The hope for Haiti in the face of cholera lies in lessons learned, following a 2010 earthquake, after which Haiti suffered the worst cholera outbreak in modern history, according to the Center for Disease Control. Nearly 10,000 people in Haiti died of the treatable disease.
The international community bears the burden as well. The U.N. publicly took responsibility for bringing Virbrio cholerae, the bacteria which causes cholera, through Nepalese peacekeepers who went to the island nation following the earthquake.
New UN measures
A spokesman for Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the U.N. needs to do "much more" to address the cholera epidemic in Haiti, and promised a "significant new set of U.N. actions" to respond to the crisis, probably in two months or less. On Tuesday, the World Health Organization announced it is sending one million doses of oral cholera vaccine to Haiti.
Vaccinating all 10 million Haitians on the island would cost over $100 million, according to the American Council on Science and Health.
"That said, when you break something in a store, you have to buy it," Dr. Julianna LeMieux of ACSH wrote on their website. "It's time for the international body to give its health experts the financial support they need to correct the catastrophe it created."
While Dr. Krishnan did not specifically call out one organization to bear responsibility for the crisis, he urged the international community to be aware of how complex and dire the situation on the ground is.
"Haiti needs all the attention and support it can get now," he said.