For Haiti, return of cholera is a ‘disaster’

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When Haitian aid officials try to describe their concern over the new and rapidly spreading cholera epidemic, they struggle to find strong enough words: “alarming,” “chaotic,” even “disaster.”

Much of the island’s population was isolated — and had no access to medical care — either because of severe fuel shortages or because of violent armed groups that control vast swaths of territory.

And without health carecholera patients suffering from acute diarrhea can die of dehydration in just a few hours.

“It’s a disaster. We are stunned,” Dr Jean William Pape told AFP. His NGO, Gheskio, runs two of the country’s 15 cholera treatment centers.

In one of them, in the capital Port-au-Prince, “we have 80 beds and they are all occupied,” he said. “Because of the fuel shortage, people in the slums told me that there were several deaths in their areas because there was no way to transport the sick.”

An armed gang has blocked a key fuel terminal in Warre, north of the capital, for weeks, worsening the country’s paralysis.

UN peacekeepers brought cholera to Haiti in 2010, resulting in thousands of deaths.

But for now the last flashsince 2019, no cases of the disease have been reported in Haiti.

As of Wednesday, the Ministry of Health has registered 33 cholera deaths and 960 suspected cases.

And this number can seriously replace the problem, according to Bruno Maes, the representative of UNICEF in Haiti.

Experts say the situation is all the more distressing because even severe cases of cholera are easily treatable with a few days of rest and rehydration and that there is a cholera vaccine.

This vaccine, however, is only effective for about five years, and the last large targeted vaccination campaign in Haiti was in 2017.

It is difficult for children

About half of all cases here involve children under the age of 14, who are particularly vulnerable when their immune systems are weakened by poor nutrition due to poverty.

“Many of them are very malnourished,” Dr. Pape said, adding that it is difficult to find their veins for IV solutions.

According to UN estimates, 4.7 million Haitians, almost half of the country’s population, suffer from acute food insecurity.

Doctors Without Borders (MSF) operates four centers with a total of 250 beds and approximately 20 oral rehydration clinics, deputy head of mission Moha Zemrag told AFP.

He said the priority is to ensure access drinking water in areas controlled by gangs, such as the Brooklyn neighborhood of the metropolitan commune of Cite-Salay, where there was no fresh water for three months.

Cholera is caused by ingesting water or food contaminated with bacteria called cholera vibrio.

The high risk of kidnapping by gangs prevented aid groups from entering these areas to disinfect homes and buildings with chlorine.

While MSF has set up a shuttle system to safely transport its staff to treatment centers, fuel shortages could make that impossible “for weeks,” Zemrag said.

Concern is also growing for rural residents who, without access to fuel, may have to go for help for days at a time. Early cases were found in the Nipes region in the south and in Artibonite in the north.

Armed groups are now blocking highways leading both north and south, Mace said.

“Port-au-Prince is literally surrounded, strangled,” he said.

UNICEF offices were ransacked and drug shipments blocked at the port.

Humanitarian corridors

The return of cholera has revived nightmare memories of an epidemic launched by UN peacekeepers wearing blue helmets in 2010 after a massive earthquake devastated the country. From then until 2019, the disease claimed more than 10,000 lives.

But conditions are different today, said Sylvain Aldighieri, deputy director of public health emergencies at the Pan American Health Organization.

“So far we’re not seeing the explosion (in cases) that we saw in the early months” of 2010, he said.

He said that the authorities have “10 years of experience cholera“, and now the main thing is to “reactivate the mechanisms” that worked before.

However, doing so presents challenges.

The UN on Friday imposed sanctions, including an arms embargo, against several groups. But there is still no disagreement on whether to send new international forces to the country.

Such a force, Aldighieri said, could create “humanitarian corridors for hard-hit areas” and help free supplies that are currently stuck at ports.

At the moment, he added, planes with additional cargo are expected in the coming days.

WHO warns that the number of cholera in Haiti may increase

© 2022 AFP

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