Washington D.C. --
With a growing number of cholera cases in Haiti and the potential threat of mass illness reaching the Haitian capital, the Red Cross network is attempting to contain the outbreak to the areas where it started, while also stepping up prevention efforts in Port-au-Prince.
The center of the outbreak is in the Artibonite River valley, north and northwest of the capital, where 3,015 cases and 253 deaths were confirmed as of Sunday. In addition, five cases were confirmed in Port-au-Prince over the weekend, although all were contracted in the Artibonite River valley region.
The Red Cross and other groups are concerned that a wave of cholera could sweep the tent cities in Port-au-Prince inhabited by hundreds of thousands of people left homeless by the January 12th earthquake. To prepare for that possibility, the Red Cross is opening one of five cholera treatment centers in the capital. The center will provide additional medical capacity and inhibit the spread of illness by isolating cholera patients.
In addition, hundreds of Red Cross personnel are fanning out to talk with vulnerable populations about the threat of cholera, and emergency messages about cholera prevention and treatment are being broadcast across the country via Red Cross radio, SMS texts and sound trucks.
―The American Red Cross has been actively involved in the rapid response to this crisis,‖ said Ricardo Caivano, American Red Cross Country Director in Haiti. ―An American Red Cross emergency response team – including experts in health, water and sanitation, logistics and disaster relief - has been deployed to St Marc as part of the overall Red Cross effort there, and we have supplied critical items like chlorine to produce clean water for the affected areas. In Port-au-Prince, where we have a large team of health promoters educating people in the camps about good health and hygiene for months, the American Red Cross is doubling the size of its team and plans to reach thousands of families in the coming days. We recognize that this is a large and vulnerable population and are working hard to help them stay healthy.‖
The American Red Cross currently has 97 trained health promoters working in and around Port-au-Prince, and that number will increase to more than 200 in coming days. The teams of Haitian Red Cross volunteers are going tent-by-tent to talk about cholera prevention, symptoms and treatment. These are supplemented by health promoters working with other members of the Red Cross network.
Officials have stressed that the outbreak is outside the earthquake-affected area of Port-au-Prince, but the next couple of days will be critical.
―The key to solving this crisis is prevention,‖ said Dr Jean-Pierre Guiteau, executive director of the Haitian Red Cross. ―As a pediatrician I can tell you that cholera is easy to treat, but people need to know how and we need to give people this information in clear language they can understand. The messages are simple: wash your hands constantly with soap and clean water and keep hydrated.‖
A mass communication effort has been launched to inform the population about the causes, symptoms and means of preventing cholera. Last Thursday the Red Cross network began sending SMS text messages to people in the affected region advising them on good hygiene and sanitation practices. Two text messages per day have been sent, advising people on practices such as frequent hand-washing with soap and boiling or purifying water before it is consumed. Similar messages are being broadcast nationwide via Red Cross radio, and sound trucks that will be traveling through the camps.
―In the next 24-48 hours we will have a much better understanding if this spells a crisis for Port-au-Prince,‖ said Pentti Haatanen, team leader of the Finnish Red Cross and technical advisor to the Red Cross network’s cholera response. ―In the meantime, we are doing everything we can to stop this threat from turning into another tragedy for the people of Port-au-Prince.‖
The Red Cross network responded to this health disaster as soon as the first cases were reported. Medical supplies, including IV fluids, oral rehydration salts, antibiotics, first aid kits, surgical masks and gloves, as well as chlorine and cholera kits, water-purification tablets, tens of thousands of liters of clean water, disinfectant sprayers and large tents and sleeping mats to increase the hospital’s capacity, have all been sent to the affected areas.
In addition, the Red Cross will continue to distribute more than 660,000 gallons of clean water each day in the Port-au-Prince area, as it has been doing for months.
The Red Cross is working closely with the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission and the Haitian government’s Ministry of Health and Department of Civil Protection to support local health and water systems in response to this outbreak. The Red Cross is also coordinating its response with the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations in Haiti.
Health officials have identified the Artibonite River as the source of the outbreak, and most of the cases have occurred in an area in the interior of Haiti along the river, north and northwest of Port-au-Prince. The town of St Marc has been severely affected.
Cholera symptoms include severe diarrhea, vomiting and abdominal pains. Patients have died within three or four hours after symptoms started, and children are especially vulnerable.