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At a glance: Haiti

UNICEF constructs treatment centres to control the spread of cholera in Haiti

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2279/Dormino
Workers set up a cholera treatment post at Gheskio Health Centre in Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. UNICEF supports several such centres.

By Benjamin Steinlechner

L’ESTERE, Haiti, 4 November 2010 – As tropical storm Tomas continues it’s ominous path towards Haiti, the possibility that it could strengthen into a hurricane  poses a major threat to the beleaguered island nation. With over a million people living in temporary camps and an outbreak of cholera currently tearing its way north, Tomas – expected to pass over Haiti on Friday -  would worsen an already dire situation dramatically.

In advance of the potential hurricane, preparations are currently being made to try and mitigate the devastation Tomas might bring.

Igenice Merceda furrows her brow as she sits on a hospital bed holding the hand of her son, Godson Noel, as a doctor changes the intravenous drip attached to the boy’s hand.

The tent is hot and overflowing with people. A girl lying next to Godson Noel is half conscious and mumbling in a feverous dream.

“I came here today after my son started vomiting and got sick with diarrhoea,” says Ms. Merceda. “We had to take a motorbike taxi, and when we arrived my son was already half unconscious.”

High risk of infection

Godson Noel and his mother are in one of three temporary tents installed by Cuban doctors who are helping the health authorities treat people sickened in Haiti’s cholera outbreak. UNICEF is now replacing these makeshift facilities with a dedicated Cholera Treatment Centre (CTC) in the local community hospital, located about two hours north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2277/Dormino
A Haitian Red Cross worker demonstrates proper handwashing to students, part of a cholera prevention campaign in Port-au-Prince.

“We have about 80 patients with cholera symptoms coming in here every day, and we’re lacking the room to accommodate them,” says Dr Narciso Ortiz. “Cholera is a highly contagious disease,” he adds. “It’s essential to isolate patients suffering from it from the others.”

But isolation is a measure that the hospital’s single small building doesn’t allow for.

“We are trying our best to keep the patients apart by setting up these makeshift tents, but this is not sufficient. We are still running a high risk of getting people infected here – patients as well as hospital staff,” explains Dr Ortiz.

Fully equipped tents

In response to these challenges, a team of UNICEF doctors and logistics specialists arrived at the hospital this past weekend. In cooperation with the Ecuadorian and Bolivian contingents of MINUSTAH – the UN mission in Haiti – they filled in the swamp adjacent to the hospital building with five truckloads of soil to create a stable foundation for construction of the CTC.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2277/Dormino
Students learn about cholera prevention in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as part of a campaign that includes messages about proper handwashing, use of safe water and proper waste management and disposal.

“This foundation will serve to hold ten 40-square-metre hospital tents that will serve as dedicated housing for the suspected cholera cases the hospital is receiving each day,” says UNICEF Field Coordinator Frank Kashando.

“Setting up a tent seems easy. But setting up ten with medical facilities is a major job,” he continues. Fully equipped with medical supplies and a water-and-sanitation system, the tents will also have all the basic equipment needed for cholera treatment.

Reaching more patients

“The water supply is one of the biggest challenges we are facing with the CTC,” notes Mr. Kashando. “But in partnership with the Spanish Red Cross, the water will be treated right here at the hospital and distributed in the hospital. For the water distribution, UNICEF will also provide plastic jerry cans. “

The ten tents will provide room for treating about 100 patients in a hygienic environment, as well as a separate rest and recreation area for doctors and nurses.

Meanwhile, outside the small hospital building, streams of patients are still being treated in the open air. Some lie unconscious on mattresses, their arms attached to intravenous drips dangling from tree branches.

Public awareness is critical

“This is the worst thing about this situation, having no adequate facilities to help people. The new CTC will significantly reduce the risk of infection in the hospital,” says Dr. Ortiz. “This is an important step in stopping this disease from spreading further.”

Despite these efforts, however, the response to the cholera outbreak in Haiti will not be effective unless the population is well informed about the risks of infection and precautionary measures they can take. UNICEF and its partners are working to refine their public-awareness and sensitization strategies – so that new infections can be prevented and health care workers can concentrate on treating those who are already sick.



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