|A girl stands surrounded by floodwater in Raboto, a slum area of Gonaïves, in the Artibonite Region of Haiti, which was hit hard by Hurricane Tomas.|
By Benjamin Steinlechner
GONAÏVES, Haiti, 10 November 2010 – After several 14-hour days battling a cholera epidemic in the coastal town of Gonaïves, the last thing Dr. Dieula Louissaint needed was a hurricane.
As head of the Department of Health in the Artibonite region, Dr. Louissaint had been working tirelessly to coordinate the response to the cholera outbreak here. Her efforts were further complicated when Hurricane Tomas came roaring through this Caribbean nation last week.
Gonaïves, which sits in the north of the region, with mountains on one side and the ocean on the other, was hit especially hard.
Hospital cases on the rise
“In addition to us having to interrupt our work responding to the epidemic, another reason for the rise in infections is that people didn’t have access to sanitary facilities. People died at home and infected others,” explained Dr. Louissaint.
|Children are released after being treated for cholera at the Raboto Hospital in Gonaïves, Haiti, hindering the response to the cholera outbreak.|
“The floodwater has dispersed the disease even more and infected many people drinking untreated water. Altogether, the hurricane has delayed our efforts to respond to the further spread of cholera in Artibonite,” she added.
On the outskirts of town, Raboto Hospital is now receiving hundreds of patients a day. “We are seeing a lot more cases here since after the hurricane,” said Marcel Chatelier, the hospital’s Medical Director. “In the space of two days, we had 388 cases.”
Hurricane complicates response
UNICEF and its partners distributed large quantities of oral rehydration salts, water-purification tablets and other supplies prior to the storm. But these, alone, weren’t sufficient to help the very serious cases.
|A woman looks worried at her cholera-infected grandchild at Raboto Hospital in Gonaïves, Haiti, part of the region where cholera has killed hundreds and left thousands hospitalized.|
“We felt like we were stranded for four days,” said Dr. Louissaint. “We couldn’t move anywhere.” As a result, she noted, cholera deaths increased in the hospitals of upper Artibonite.
Water and winds lashed Gonaïves for two days late last week, causing flooding in the town centre and forcing many residents to seek shelter on higher ground and in schools and community centres. But the hurricane, which was expected to make landfall but did not, could have been much worse.
Nonetheless, the damage and disruption caused by Hurricane Tomas have made responding to the cholera epidemic much more difficult – and have increased the likelihood of the disease spreading.
|Herida Pierre, 36, and her grandchildren stand surrounded by floodwater in the Raboto slum district of Gonaïves, Haiti.|
A cholera-prevention campaign now under way throughout Haiti is helping people understand what they can do to protect themselves and their families against infection. The information campaign advises them to regularly wash their hands with soap, to drink only safe, clean water and to disinfect any surface that may have been contaminated.
Still, the number of cholera infections continues to increase. The Artibonite region accounts for the overwhelming majority of the hundreds of deaths and thousands of hospitalizations caused by the cholera outbreak in Haiti.
Numbers mean little to Herida Pierre, 36, who lives at the edge of the sea in the impoverished Raboto area of Gonaïves. A mother of nine, Ms. Pierre said the cholera had amplified her concern that her children might get sick “like so many neighbours here.”
As the storm worsened and the land near her house disappeared under water, neighbours rushed to help evacuate her family. “They helped the children first. I came with them, with my eldest daughter’s little baby,” recalled Ms. Pierre.
Sadly, her 21- year-old daughter could not be found until the next day, when her body was recovered by the shore.
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