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Haitian community of Gonaives struggles against cholera in aftermath of Hurricane Tomas

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-2435/Marco Dormino
Herida Pierre stands with her grandchildren in an area inundated by flood water from Hurricane Tomas, in the impoverished Raboto area of the city of Gonaïves in Artibonite Region.

Gonaives, November 10th,  2010 – After several 14-hour days battling a cholera epidemic in the coastal town of Gonaives, the last thing Dr. Louissaint Dieula needed was a hurricane.


Dr. Dieula, Head of the Department of Health in Artibonite region, the epicenter of cholera in Haiti, had been working tirelessly to coordinate the response to the cholera outbreak in the Artibonite region in Haiti’s north- west.


But her efforts were made even more complicated when hurricane Tomas came roaring through this tiny island nation last week. Gonaives, a town that sits below sea level in the north of the region surrounded by mountains on one side and by the ocean on the other, was hit especially hard.


The hurricane’s departure has left the region bathing in water and given Dr. Dieula another reason to be concerned about cholera spreading even further north.


“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 institutions. People died at home and infected others,” she explains.


“The flood water has dispersed the disease even more and infected many people drinking untreated water. All together, the hurricane has delayed our efforts to respond to the further spread of cholera in Artibonite.”


To stabilize the situation in the Upper Artibonite, UNICEF is helping supply what is needed most - quantities of aquatabs water purification tablets and oral rehydration salts. Supplies are being provided and distributed on the ground. But more are needed and are on the way.


On the outskirts of town, in Raboto hospital, whose patients had to be moved in preparation for the storm, is now receiving hundreds of patients a day.


 “We are seeing a lot more cases here since after the hurricane,” says Marcel Chatelier, Medical Director of Raboto hospital. “In the space of two days we had 388 cases, alone.”


Despite UNICEF and is partners distributing vast quantities of oral rehydration salts, water purification tablets, and other medical supplies prior to the storm, these alone weren’t sufficient to help the very serious cases.


“We felt like we were stranded for four days,” adds Dr. Dieula. “We couldn’t move anywhere, which had an immediate adverse impact on the number of deaths and the number of cholera cases in the hospitals in Upper Artibonite.”


Water and winds lashed Gonaives overnight for two days late last week, causing flooding in the town centre and forcing many residents in IDP communities to seek shelter in high ground and in schools and community centres. The hurricane, which was expected to make landfall, could have been much worse.


Nonetheless, the damage and disruption of Hurricane Tomas has made responding to the cholera epidemic much more difficult and has increased the likelihood of the disease spreading even faster and wider.


A powerful cholera prevention information campaign being conducted throughout Haiti is helping people understand what they can do to protect themselves and their family against infection. The campaign advises people to regularly wash their hands with soap, to drink only safe, clean water, and to disinfect any surface that may have been contaminated by the cholera disease.


Nonetheless, the cholera infection increases. The Artibonite region alone accounts for the overwhelming majority of cholera cases in Haiti – 450 of 643 deaths attributed to cholera according to a Nov 8 report by the Haitian Ministry of Health. The ministry has to date reported 643 deaths and 9,971 people hospitalized across Haiti. 


But numbers mean little to Herida Pierre, who lives at the edge of the seas in the impoverished Raboto area of Gonaives. As a mother of nine children, Herida says the cholera has increased her concern her children might get sick “like so many neighbors here”.  


Hurricane Tomas also brought other ill winds to her household.


As the storm worsened and the land near Herida’s 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,” Herida says. But Herida’s 21- year-old daughter could not be found until the next day when her body was recovered by the shore.


For more information:

Jean Jacques Simon, jsimon@unicef.org,  UNICEF Haiti

Tamar Hahn, thahn@unicef.org, UNICEF Latin America and the Caribbean





UNICEF is on the ground in over 155 countries and territories to help children survive and thrive, from early childhood through adolescence. The world’s largest provider of vaccines for developing countries, UNICEF supports child health and nutrition, good water and sanitation, quality basic education for all boys and girls, and the protection of children from violence, exploitation, and AIDS.  UNICEF is funded entirely by the voluntary contributions of individuals, businesses, foundations and governments.


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