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At a glance: Haiti

As cholera toll mounts in Haiti, UNICEF and partners aim to prevent wider outbreak

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2149/Dormino
A child receives oral rehydration treatment at the health centre in Grand Dessalines, a town on the Artibonite River in Haiti, as UNICEF and partners respond to a cholera outbreak centred 70 km north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

NEW YORK, USA, 25 October 2010 – Concern is growing in Haiti as the number of cases of acute diarrhoea caused by cholera continues to rise, and fear of a wider outbreak grows. Since the first cases were confirmed last week, a total of some 3,000 cholera cases and more than 250 deaths from the waterborne illness have been reported.

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Victims of the outbreak are being hospitalized with a variety of diarrhoea-related side effects, including dehydration, vomiting and abdominal pain. The confirmed cases are clustered around the Artibonite River in a region two hours north of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Cases are occurring in the country’s Central and West departments, as well. 

UNICEF Haiti’s Chief of Health, Dr. Jean-Claude Mubalama, said on Friday that the situation was hectic and the local hospital in Saint-Marc was overwhelmed with sick people.

“The people here – the medical [staff] and the nurses – are not very familiar with this kind of disease,” said Mr. Mubalama. As a result, UNICEF is managing the available resources, as well as coordinating with government and local partners, to try to treat people as quickly as possible, he added.

Deaths among children

Children are particularly vulnerable. Mr. Mubalama estimated that 30 per cent of the recent deaths were among children, but the ages of the patients were not recorded on their arrival at the hospital.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2096/Dormino
A baby and other patients suffering from acute diarrhoea lie on the floor of St. Nicholas Hospital in Saint-Marc, Artibonite Department, Haiti.

“The children are arriving at the hospital very, very, very late – at the last moment,” explained Mr. Mubalama. “They are dying when they arrive.”

According to the Artibonite Health District, there are only three to four hours between the onset of symptoms and death. While Mr. Mubalama estimated that 80 per cent of all the deaths are occurring in people’s homes, the survival rate is much higher for those who can get to the hospital before their symptoms become too severe.

Unsanitary conditions

The cause of the cholera cases is still unclear, but it is feared that the water in the Artibonite River is contaminated, and the Government of Haiti is sampling it for testing.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2100/Dormino
A Haitian boy suffering from acute diarrhoea cries as a nurse provides him with an intravenous rehydrating solution at St. Nicholas Hospital in Saint-Marc, a town in Artibonite Department.

The situation does not appear to be a direct result of the massive earthquake in January, but the crowding and movement of displaced peoples can often result in unsanitary conditions, a primary cause of cholera.

“This area was not affected by the earthquake,” said Mr. Mubalama. “But we have many people displaced from the affected area, and they come here to the Artibonite Department.”

Access to safe water

To prevent further infections, UNICEF and its partners are distributing water purification chemicals, antibiotics, diarrhoeal disease kits and oral rehydration salts, and has requested additional supplies. The World Food Programme has started distributing 9,000 ready-to-eat meals, as well as high-energy biscuits, at the hospital in Saint-Marc. And yesterday, Haitian President René Préval and several government ministers travelled to Saint-Marc for a roundtable discussion with local authorities on how best to respond to the crisis.

Elsewhere, relief efforts continue as the government, non-governmental organizations and the UN mission in Haiti provide assistance in a growing number of locations. In one potentially hopeful positive sign, the rate of increase of confirmed cholera cases is reportedly is less than it was in the initial days of the outbreak.

Cholera is caused by consuming contaminated water and food and often spreads as a result of poor sanitation and hygiene. It is preventable provided there is access to sanitary washroom facilities and safe, drinkable water – both of which remain difficult to come by as Haiti continues to recover from the earthquake that devastated the country 10 months ago.




22 October 2010: UNICEF Radio speaks with UNICEF Haiti Chief of Health Jean-Claude Mubalama about the country's cholera outbreak.
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