PORT-AU-PRINCE – Using celebrities, text messages and billboards, Haitian health officials and international aid agencies have unleashed a massive Public Service Announcement campaign to stem the rapid move of the cholera epidemic that threatened to destabilize this fragile Caribbean nation.
Meanwhile a French scientist has pinpointed the source of the disease, which is caused by bacteria spread in contaminated water or food, often through feces.
As almost everything in Haiti, this campaign carries a sense of humor. In one television commercial, comedian Tonton Bicha in his best country twang is counseling a bedridden Joseph “ti Joe” Zenny of Kreyol La fame on how to cure cholera.
“don’t be afraid of cholera,” Bicha said, donning his straw hat and fake salt and pepper beard and mustache. “All you need is to rehydrate yourself and go to a clinic.”
While people are not afraid of this wretched disease, it is the talk of almost everyone. People rarely shake hands with strangers and even in church parishioners nod to each other when it’s time for the handholding tradition of a Catholic mass.
The disease – if untreated, can kill within a day through dehydration, with the old and the young the most vulnerable – has already claimed the lives of several thousands of people. Health officials are expecting thousand more deaths and roughly 400,000 people will be affected before cholera can be considered completely under control in two years, according to health officials in Haiti.
“This is catastrophic,” said Dr. Jean Claude Compas, a Brooklyn 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, health officials breathed a sigh of relief that cholera and other epidemics did not sweep across the country as sanitary conditions deteriorated with more than 1.5 million people living under tents and other temporary shelter.
So in November, when cases of cholera were reported in the Artibonite region, health officials were caught flat footed and had to make a plea to the international community for financial aid to deal with the disease. The primary fear was that it could spread across the country because many people did not know the symptoms and how to protect themselves from the disease.
During a recent visit, a Haitian Times photographer and a contributor spent a few hours with a team of doctors and health workers treating and discarding dead bodies.
The clinic, located in Martissant, is run by the French group, Doctors Without Borders.
A small clinic marked by a low sign behind high metal fence with a gate, covered with a tarp, it was cool compared to the heat outside. To the right another tent was where cholera victims were housed. Patients shuffled about the place where there are a hand wash station and a foot bath for victims. The patients were evaluated and those with serious symptoms were brought through another tent for IV treatment.
While health officials continue to deal with the aftermath, a French foreign ministry source has told journalists that the cholera began at a camp for UN peacekeepers from Nepal. That information has been a source of tension between Haitians who resent the presence of MINUSTAH, as the UN forces in Haiti is known.
According to the French news agency AFP, Respected French epidemiologist Professor Renaud Piarroux conducted a study in Haiti last month and concluded the epidemic began with an imported strain of the disease that could be traced back to the Nepalese base.
“The source of the infection came from the Nepalese camp,” the source told AFP, speaking on condition on anonymity as he was not authorized to discuss a report that has not yet been made public.
“The starting point has been very precisely localized,” he said, pointing to the UN base at Mirebalais on the Artibonite River in central Haiti.
“There is no other possible explanation given that there was no cholera in the country, and taking into account the intensity and the speed of the spread and the concentration of bacteria in the Artibonite delta,” he said.
The United Nations, which has faced violent protests in Haiti over its alleged role in an outbreak, insists there is no evidence that its troops were to blame.
Haitian officials say the first cases of cholera, a waterborne illness, broke out on the banks of the Artibonite River, downstream of the UN base.
Last month, Edmond Mulet, head of the United Nations mission in Haiti, said no UN soldier, police officer nor civilian official had tested positive for cholera, and he defended the Nepalese, who have been the target of protests.
All samples taken from the latrines, kitchens and water supply at the suspect Nepalese camp have proved negative, Mulet said.
“There is no scientific evidence that the camp at Mirebalais is the source of this epidemic,” he said, complaining of “a lot of disinformation, a lot of rumors around this situation.”