Haiti death toll from cholera nears 1,000

  • November 18, 2010
Haiti girls schoolPORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti  - Cholera in Haiti has killed close to 1,000 people and hospitalized more than 14,000 as parish volunteers and international aid organizations scramble to minimize the impact in Port-au-Prince, where one million people are still living in tents after last January’s devastating earthquake.

As of Nov. 15 the official death toll was 917 and it is not expected to peak for a number of weeks yet.

Symptoms of cholera, a water-borne infectious disease, include diarrhea, vomiting and fever. Untreated, the resulting dehydration is fatal.

Caritas Haiti has distributed all 76,000 hygiene kits it had warehoused in case of a cholera outbreak. The international network of Catholic development agencies is now scrambling to resupply Caritas Haiti.

The Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace has contributed $123,000 for the immediate purchase of 3,000 hygiene kits and is training a network of Caritas Port-au-Prince volunteers active in 20 different tent camps around the capital.

The Catholic aid agencies in the Caritas network, along with 40 large non-governmental organizations, five United Nations agencies and the International Organization for Migration, are helping the Haitian Ministry of Health stage a massive public education effort.

Catholic Relief Services is using artist and local folk hero Jerry Rosembert to paint murals around the camps with basic hygiene and anti-cholera messages. Caritas Haiti has placed anti-cholera messages on Radio Tele Soliel. Development and Peace has paid for 3,000 pamphlets to be printed and distributed, while its partners are educating people in the countryside.

“I think churches and development NGOs can have an important impact on reducing cholera in Haiti by becoming directly involved in the provision of publicly planned and administered universal sanitation and clean water systems,” University of Toronto public health professor Anne-Emmanuelle Birn told The Catholic Register in an e-mail. “As well, churches can serve as powerful advocates for infrastructural and broader socio-political approaches to improving health in Haiti overall.”

“Faith-based organizations can help a lot to improve health around the world and in emergency situations such as this also,” said international public health expert Abdallah Daar.

Toronto’s Sisters of St. Joseph have been praying in a special way for Haiti during the cholera crisis. The sisters came to Toronto in 1851 amid a cholera epidemic.

“We’ve been praying to them especially that the epidemic can stop,” said Sr. Pat Boucher.

A member of their community, Sr. Mary Alban, is working in Haiti.

There are more than one million Haitians still living in tents 10 months after the Jan. 12 earthquake that killed 230,000, but that doesn’t mean people are overwhelmed by the scale of the problem or losing hope, said Caritas Haiti spokesperson Ridona Cornet.

“People from abroad are often surprised by the ability of people in Haiti to keep on,” she said. “There’s always the hope that things will get better.”

Cornet said cash was the most welcome form of aid at the moment because it allowed for rapid deployment. Supplies sent to Haiti have to pass through customs and might not reach vulnerable populations for months, she said.

Trying to contain the spread of cholera in Port-au-Prince’s crowded slums and even more crowded tent-cities will be hard, said Cornet. There are 2.5 million people in Port-au-Prince, including the vast Cite Soleil slum.

The leader of Haiti’s largest organization for small farmers told The Catholic Register that official death tolls understate the totals by at least 20 per cent.

“People who die at home are not counted — only those who die in hospital,” said Chavannes Jean Baptiste, director of the Mouvman Peyisan Papay (Creole for the Peasant Movement of Papaye).

Baptiste is planning to use his network of 60,000 farmers and the organization’s radio service to broadcast information about the disease and distribute hygiene kits.

“People have been through so much. Now they’re panicking again. They don’t have information,” said Baptiste.

(With files from CNS.)

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