Cholera Outbreak Highlights Haiti’s Ongoing Sanitation Problems

BY Talea Miller  October 27, 2010 at 2:33 PM EST

Collecting water in Haiti

Deaths from Haiti’s cholera outbreak are slowing, but health experts warn that the threat of further spread, fueled by chronically unsanitary conditions, is still very real.

At least 284 Haitians have died of the highly-contagious waterborne illness in the past week, and the World Health Organization said Wednesday the disease is not yet contained.

“I think we haven’t reached the peak,” Claire-Lise Chaignat, the organization’s cholera chief, told reporters.

The equation for preventing the spread of cholera sounds simple enough: safe drinking water, frequent and thorough hand washing, and access to clean latrines.

But even before the January earthquake that displaced 1.5 million people in Port-au-Prince, access to these services in Haiti was among the worst in the world. Less than half of Haitians could get clean water, and only 20 percent had access to a toilet, according to the NGO Oxfam International.

“It’s far worse in rural regions so the lesson to be learned in this cholera outbreak is that there is a very poor water and sanitation infrastructure in this country,” said Julie Schindall a media officer with Oxfam in Haiti. “People are very vulnerable and we can’t just think about Port-au-Prince.”

The cholera outbreak began in the rural area of Antibonite. As part of the emergency intervention, 22 rural towns have received helicopter deliveries of chlorine, according to UNICEF, which co-chairs the water and sanitation effort with the Haitian government.

Oxfam and several other NGOs are also now providing water purification tablets, rehydration salts packs, and bars of soap to the region. But these efforts won’t solve Haiti’s long-term challenge of consistently providing safe water and sanitation.

“The actions that are being taken now, immediately and over the next few months are not necessarily sustainable strategies, these are emergency strategies to stamp out the cholera,” said Mark Henderson, chief of the water and sanitation programs for UNICEF in Haiti.

Back in Port-au-Prince, where thousands of people have been living in camps since their homes were destroyed in January, health workers are on high alert and have stepped up the monitoring of water supplies. Henderson said the level of chlorination in camp and community water supplies has been increased, and the water is being tested at 150 points in the city.

World Vision, an NGO working in 50 camps in the Port-au-Prince area, is redoubling its efforts hoping to catch and isolate any cases that might crop up before they wreak havoc in the tightly-packed camps.

“For us this is an emergency within an emergency,” said Jenafir House, World Vision’s humanitarian protection manager in Haiti. Among the biggest challenges, House said, is removing waste and keeping latrines clean with thousands of people in the camps using limited facilities.

As the country works on a long-term strategy to prevent waterborne disease, Henderson said sanitation must be a focus.

“Without good sanitation, even if you improve the drinking water you aren’t going to see beneficial effects,” he said. “It all has to come together.”