In the press
Keeping cholera at bay
by Fai Collins Dzernyuy
Port au Prince, Haiti: The United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) Community Violence Section (CVR) has been crisscrossing the cholera affected areas in the last two weeks to distribute water filters to schools, orphanages, health centres and churches to try to control the spread of the deadly disease which has left more than one thousand people dead. The central point for distribution has been the Artibonite department, which has been identified as the region where the outbreak started.
According to Dr. Erick Edouarado Valencia, a UNV volunteer who is the medical officer in the area, the source of the bacteria is the Artibonite River, but no one knows how the contamination happened. He attributes the main causes of the disease to a number of factors: the lack of drinking water in the area (pipe-borne water is inexistent in the area), the relatively high cost of treated water, lack of individual means to purify water, and most importantly the lack of information as people did not know anything about this disease.
The spread of the disease has been very rapid, not only within the region but in Haiti as a whole and in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where a patient has already been identified. Dr. Erick Edouarado Valencia points out that the main reason for the rapid spread is the high mobility in Haiti. The region of Artibonite produces a lot of rice and green vegetables; the farmers travel to sell the produce, and people travel to the region to buy, which entails a high risk of cholera transmission.
In order to check the rapid spread of the disease and to fill the lack of water purification equipment, CVR staff has been visiting the various affected areas in St Marc, Port au Prince and Gonaives with a consignment of water filters and purification tablets. They are distributed to head teachers, managers of orphanages, churches and other community structures that attract many people.
Each team is composed of local staff and UNV volunteers. Since the outbreak of the epidemic, they know neither week-end nor public holiday. They have been tasked to join the other humanitarian organizations involved in checking the spread of the deadly disease.
If radio and television awareness campaigns and the behaviour of many people are anything to go by, one can say that people are doing everything possible to prevent the disease. Hand shake, a common greeting in Haitian society, is very rare nowadays. Friends hit each others’ closed fists or their elbows as a sign of greeting. Radio and television spots sensitize people to always wash their hands before eating and to avoid uncooked food. At the entrance to certain institutions there is a water tap where people have to wash their hands before entering.
Before distributing the kits to the population, the CVR team demonstrates how to use the water filter. A few people from the audience are also called up to set up the filter. To ensure that the demonstration is well understood, it is carried out in Creole. After the demonstration exercise, the audience is allowed to ask questions and there are always many. To prove that the equipment can purify water even from the Artibonite River, which is the source of their suffering, the CVR team purifies water from it and drinks to the surprise of the audience. Each bucket on which the water filter is fitted can purify water for up to 200 people per day.
Dr Erick Eduardo Valencia has also been carrying out voluntary work to help the cholera patients and their families. He says that since the outbreak, he has been working with the staff of the World Health Organization (WHO), backing them up, and taking them to local authorities and hospitals to find out what the situation is like and to learn about the needs of patients. He has also been assisting with medical supplies.
Everyone’s hope is that the disease will soon be under control and that people will take on board the preventive measures to cope with this and other ever-present water-borne diseases.
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