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January 10, 2012

Health Officials Seek Support to Stamp Out Cholera in Haiti

by Vidushi Sinha

Health officials in Haiti, the Dominican Republic and the United States are calling for international support to end the cholera epidemic that has killed thousands of people in Haiti since the devastating earthquake that struck the Caribbean nation two years ago.

There have been half a million cholera cases and 7,000 deaths in Haiti since the outbreak began in October 2010.  More than 200 new cases are being reported every day.  That's prompting public health officials to launch a campaign not just to control cholera but to eliminate it from Hispaniola, the Caribbean island that Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. The continuing outbreak there is one of the worst cholera epidemics the world has seen in decades.

Health experts say that beyond life-saving interventions such as cholera clinics, chlorine pills and oral rehydration salts, there is a dire need to rebuild Haiti's infrastructure  -- especially water and sewer systems. Most remain in ruins from the earthquake two years ago.

Jordan Tappero is with the Global Diseases and Emergency Response team at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “After 15 months, the good news is that the international community efforts -- government of Haiti efforts -- to control mortality, to bring it below one percent, has been succeeded. We need to sustain those efforts. However to eliminate cholera, we are going to need a major investment in infrastructure for access to clean water and access to sanitation,” he said.

Haitian health officials say more than one million children under five die each year in Haiti from diarrheal diseases.

Haitian children learn in school how to stay healthy in a world where a careless sip of contaminated water can be fatal.

Sanjay Wijesekera is the director of water, sanitation and hygiene for UNICEF. “The answer isn't a single silver bullet. There are a range of measures that work // around infrastructure, around getting people to change certain behavior or adopt certain behaviors, and around clinics and case containment and the vaccine is also a potential new element,” he said.

Dr. Jon Andrus is the deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). He says the traditional strategies of disease prevention and control such as hand washing, latrine use and other hygienic measures are all critical,but not enough to save millions of lives.

“If we continue with the current prevention and control strategies, we will still have 200 cases of cholera a day. We won’t eliminate it as we are trying to do with this initiative,” Andrus said.

He says the initiative's goal is to help Haiti and the Dominican Republic create a cholera-free Hispaniola. “It won’t happen today.  Could it happen in 8 to 10 years?  I think it can. I think we are all very, very optimistic that if the right thing is done ensuring safe water and sanitation as a basic human right to citizens of Haiti, it will get done,” Andrus said.

The World Bank estimates that it will cost more than $1 billion to build the infrastructure in Haiti that most of its people have never known.