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Hurricane Matthew and Cholera: A Race Against Time

Hurricane Matthew and Cholera: A Race Against Time

Over the coming weeks we will share about MCC’s developing response for Haitians affected by Hurricane Matthew. Along with the destruction to people’s homes and livelihoods, one of the most pressing needs is the prevention and treatment of cholera, an often fatal and easily-spreadable disease that has a surprising history in Haiti.

Contaminated water after Hurricane Matthew. MCC Photo/Paul Fast

Contaminated water after Hurricane Matthew. MCC Photo/Paul Fast

Unfamiliar to many in developed countries who have access to clean water, sanitation and healthcare, cholera is a bacterial infection in the intestines that causes violent vomiting and diarrhea. Without proper medical treatment, the resulting dehydration can kill up to half of infected individuals, sometimes within hours. Cholera is highly contagious and most often spread through the consumption of cholera-contaminated water. A single case in a vulnerable community can lead to skyrocketing infection rates. 

One might assume Haitians would have a long history struggling with the disease, but the opposite is true. Cholera first appeared in Haiti in 2010 when the contaminated solid waste of United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal was negligently discharged into Haiti’s main waterway, the Artibonite River. Once the disease was contracted by Haitians, it began spreading throughout the country like wildfire. 

According to official records, cholera has killed over 9,500 people and infected nearly 800,000 since the outbreak began, and some observers believe these numbers could be dramatically underreported. The human stories behind these numbers are tragic. Julien Rosemenese, a girl from a rural village near St. Marc, lost both of her parents to the disease and has contracted cholera twice, all before the age of 14. Communities with poor roads and minimal access to health services like Julien’s tell agonizing stories of having to mount sick family members on donkeys or motorcycles, or carry them on mattresses, in a race to receive medical attention.

Julien. MCC Photo/Ted Oswald

Julien. MCC Photo/Ted Oswald

While infection rates have declined in recent years through prevention and treatment programs, funding has been insufficient to mount efforts to permanently eliminate cholera from Haiti. The flooding and devastation caused by Hurricane Matthew and subsequent heavy rains have only made the situation more dire across the country.  

Vulnerable communities hard hit in the southwest of Haiti have seen spikes in new cholera cases with the UN observing 2,271 suspected cholera cases between the dates of October 4th-19th alone. Cholera treatment resources throughout the country have been redirected to the southwest, and this is leaving other high-risk communities in regions like the Artibonite, where MCC works,  ill-equipped to prevent and treat the disease. Silana Dozeis, a single mother of four in the mountaintop community of Lobo, lost her home in the hurricane. She shared, “What scares me now is knowing [my children] might get sick. So many people here have been sick with cholera, many have died, and when I saw the water I had to give them to drink after the storm, I cried."

Map of Haiti illustrating the areas at greatest risk of cholera. The Artibonite is outlined in yellow (our emphasis added.) Map produced by the Government of Haiti Oct 9, 2016.

Map of Haiti illustrating the areas at greatest risk of cholera. The Artibonite is outlined in yellow (our emphasis added.) Map produced by the Government of Haiti Oct 9, 2016.

Immediately following Hurricane Matthew, MCC traveled to several affected communities including Silana’s and distributed relief kits and purification tablets to help make water drinkable. More urgent work remains to protect against cholera’s spread. In the coming weeks, we’ll share how MCC is joining with local partners in the high-risk Artibonite region to prevent and treat cholera and save lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. 

To learn about MCC's ongoing efforts to encourage a more comprehensive UN response to cholera, visit FaceJustice.org 

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