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November 19th, 2010

Cholera Epidemic in Haiti Causes Havoc


On the island nation of Haiti, where 1.3 million people are living in tent cities following a catastrophic earthquake almost a year ago, an outbreak of the deadly disease, cholera, has claimed the lives of over 1,000 Haitians with more than 18,000 cases reported in recent weeks.

Cholera victims await treatment in Haiti, where the disease has broken out due to a lack of sanitation and clean water following a devastating earthquake on Jan. 12. More than 1,000 Haitians have died of the disease.

While cholera is a disease not common in Haiti, researchers have traced this outbreak to a strain of bacteria identical to one found in South Asia. Frustrated civilians began rioting against United Nations workers from Nepal who have been widely blamed for bringing the disease to the region. The disease is spreading rapidly with reports of cholera cases in the Dominican Republic and Florida from individuals who had been traveling and working in Haiti in the past week.

What is cholera?

Cholera is an acute diarrhoeal disease that if left untreated, can be fatal. People contract cholera from poor sanitation conditions and unsafe drinking water. Annually, there are an estimated 3-5 million cholera cases and 100,000-120,000 deaths from the disease globally.

Symptoms of cholera include diarrhea, high fever, vomiting and dehydration. If cholera is detected early, up to 80 percent of cases can be treated and cured with oral rehydration salts.

Haiti has a long history of poor living conditions, political and social unrest for its population of 10 million. A hurricane hit the island nation earlier this month causing widespread flooding and treacherous living conditions.  More than 1 million Haitians are still living in tent cities almost a year after the catastrophic 7.0 earthquake that killed an estimated 230,000 people in January 2010.

Medical officials work to contain outbreak with treatment and ads

The Haitian government and the Ministry of Health have responded to the cholera outbreak by building 12 treatment centers to support isolating the outbreak and providing medical assistances to those infected. Aid workers are also focused on prevention. The government has launched a country-wide radio and television campaign encouraging Haitians to wash their hands and avoid contaminated water sources.

Contaminated water is a main culprit in transmitting cholera. The Haitian government has launched an ad campaign telling people how to make sure their water is clean.

Ensuring access to clean water, promoting good personal hygiene and food handling practices, including hand washing and trying to prevent public urination and defecation is a top priority in halting this crisis.

Frustration leads to riots

Frustration with the new round of hardship erupted in riots in two northern cities, Cap-Haitien and Port-de-Paix and extended to the U.N. World Food Program’s basecamp in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince. Protestors are furious with a U.N. delegation from Nepal who they believe introduced this specific strand of cholera to the region.

In response to the riots, U.N. officials grounded aid flights to Cap-Haitien and suspended some medical and water chlorination projects. With Haiti’s presidential elections approaching on Nov. 28, Caribbean correspondent Jacqueline Charles told the NewsHour, “Both U.N. officials and even officials within the Haitian government have said that they have reasons to believe that the protests that happen in Cap-Haitien really have little to do with cholera, and basically may be individuals who may be spoilers or trying to create some problems before the elections.” As the death toll from the cholera outbreak rises and elections approach, Haiti is being closely monitored, as further crises could send a wave of refugees to the Florida coast.

–Compiled by Imani M. Cheers for NewsHour Extra

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