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On the Front Lines of the Cholera Epidemic

  • November 17, 2010

AmeriCares reporting from Haiti

The road to Port-au-Prince is bordered by huge open sewers and the signature blue tents of earthquake survivors.  Pools of stagnant water from the rains and flooding of Hurricane Tomas thread through the camps and serve as a pathway for the spread of cholera.

Fear of Hurricane Tomas drove people who had been living in the relatively isolated areas of the initial cholera outbreak to move to safer, but more densely populated regions, which helped spread the disease. 

Dr. Lucien Armand, AmeriCares Country Director in Haiti, tells us that cholera is now spreading like wildfire. Urgent requests for more IV solutions and other cholera treatment supplies are coming in from throughout Haiti.

Our partners report growing numbers of seriously ill cholera patients. AmeriCares  team members are  a blur of activity, with people rushing to organize shipments. 

We have become a critical source of medicines and medical supplies for many providers as the outbreak grows.  Our supplies are a lifeline in a ruined city where the neighborhood  drug store is too often a guy on the corner with a hat covered in different pills, most of which are either counterfeit or have already expired. 

So Far…  AmeriCares has already delivered enough Ringers’ Lactate IV solution to treat 2500 patients, along with large quantities of other critical IV and oral rehydration supplies. It takes an average of 8 liters a day to treat an adult and some serious cases may require as much as 20 liters per day. More AmeriCares shipments by sea and air are arriving in Haiti, with even more in preparation or on the way.

The Haitian people have no experience with cholera.  They clean their clothes, remove rubble, recycle what they can, and struggle to maintain the basics of daily life.  But they lack two critical things to combat cholera:  clean water and education about prevention and early symptoms should they fall victim to infection

Diarrhea is common so most people shrug it off, thinking it will get better. With cholera, it doesn’t; it is often too relentless and then too late for treatment. 

Cholera is deadly and Haitians are learning just how deadly it is in a country with people who have no natural resistance.  It strikes suddenly and if not treated, it can kill within hours. 

At a Treatment Center

At the cholera treatment center of a partner hospital, we first step into a pool of chlorine bleach for decontamination.  The cholera treatment center is kept very far away from the rest of the hospital. It is gated and has a guard.   

The center is following proven infection control protocols.  Plenty of hand sanitizer and all kinds of technical sanitation equipment are present throughout the center. 

Once inside, the smell of bleach, human waste and death is overpowering.  A corpse in an infection control body bag is the first thing we see. 

Since…  October 22 at the beginning of the outbreak, AmeriCares has delivered nearly 40 shipments to 25 hospitals and clinics treating cholera patients including General Hospital (HUEH), Albert Schweitzer Hospital (HAS) and OFATMA Hospital (Government Social Security Hospital).

In the family quarantine area, kids and moms are on IVs. Ten children are lying in a kind of limbo.  Will they all survive?   The rising death rate says that in spite of all the good care they are receiving here, one of these kids may not make it.  People are sleeping on chairs in the waiting room.

The whole center is virtually silent except for a woman sobbing.

We move into the main treatment room – basically a giant concrete gymnasium.  People are on benches and chairs and some on the floor to stay cool. The adult room of the center is much more crowded than the family ward.  It weeps with humidity. 

A woman is carried in a makeshift wheel chair that looks like a modified grocery cart with a white plastic chair on top of it. Dr. Armand looks at her, shaking his head sadly.  She is very, very ill.

At that point, we get the news that the latest AmeriCares air shipment has cleared. Our partners desperately need more IV solutions and other supplies. Their stock piles are being depleted, and we are rushing new supplies through the pipeline.  Back to the warehouse to help load the shipment.  All hands on deck.

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