Haitian Health Officials Try to Stem Cholera Epidemic
A massive education campaign aims to slow a disease that has taken 2,100 lives.
PORT-AU-PRINCE -- Using celebrities, text messages and billboards, Haitian health officials and international aid agencies have unleashed a massive public-education campaign to stem the rapid expansion of the cholera epidemic that threatens to destabilize this fragile Caribbean nation.
Meanwhile, a French scientist has pinpointed the source of the disease, which had not been seen in Haiti in more than 100 years. It is spread by bacteria in contaminated water or food, often through feces.
Like almost everything in Haiti, this campaign displays a sense of humor. In one television commercial, comedian Tonton Bicha is counseling a bedridden Joseph "ti Joe" Zenny of popular band Kreyol La on how to treat cholera. "Don’t be afraid of cholera," Bicha says in his best country twang, wearing a straw hat and fake salt-and-pepper beard and mustache. "All you need is to rehydrate yourself and go to a clinic."
Although people are not afraid of this wretched disease, it is the talk everywhere and has affected how Haitians interact. People rarely shake hands with strangers, and even in churches, parishioners merely nod to one another during the traditional handshaking ceremony of the Catholic Mass.
The disease, if untreated, can kill within a day through dehydration, with the old and the young most vulnerable. Health officials in Haiti declared Tuesday that the death toll had passed 2,100. They are expecting thousands more deaths and roughly 400,000 people to be affected before cholera can be brought completely under control -- which could take as long as two years.
"This is catastrophic," says Dr. Jean Claude Compas, a Brooklyn, N.Y., physician who has been monitoring the cholera situation in Haiti. "For every one death that is reported, at least three more go unreported because officials have no way of reaching them."
After the January earthquake that destroyed this capital city and left more than 1.5 million people living in tents and other temporary shelters, health officials were relieved that cholera and other diseases did not sweep across the country as sanitary conditions deteriorated. But when the first cases of cholera were reported in the Artibonite region in November, health officials were caught flat-footed and pleaded with the international community for financial aid to deal with the disease. The primary fear was that the disease could spread across the country because many people did not know the symptoms or how to protect themselves.