Cholera outbreak in Haiti still challenges doctors, aid groups
A health-education effort is under way in Haiti encouraging people to get medical help at the first symptoms of cholera, and to use latrines and wash their hands to prevent spreading the disease.
Seattle Times staff reporter
MIREBALAIS, Haiti — In mid-October, men, women and children weakened by unrelenting vomiting and diarrhea arrived at a hospital. First, a few patients per day, then more members of the same families.
"No one knew for sure just what it was," Dr. Pierre-Marie Cherenfant said. "Everyone was alarmed."
In the following weeks, Cherenfant and Cuban-trained doctors who help run the hospital found themselves on the front lines of the Haitian cholera epidemic as dozens of gravely ill patients arrived each day from Mirebalais and surrounding villages.
Mirebalais, in Haiti's central plateau region, is near a U.N. camp of Nepalese peacekeepers who are under investigation as a possible source of the virulent strain that flared in Haiti during the fall.
Mirebalais was the second major area hit by cholera and the scene of rioting by Haitians who blamed the peacekeepers for unleashing the disease.
The epidemic continues to spread, infecting more than 125,000 people and killing more than 3,200.
But it appears to have stabilized in Mirebalais. Cherenfant said the hospital treated up to 100 gravely ill patients per day in early November. By late December, those admissions had dropped to about 20 to 30 per day.
Cholera, a bacterial infection spread through water and food, unleashes a toxin that draws liquid out of the body's cells. The Mirebalais patients are treated in tents set up behind the hospital. Everyone who enters or leaves the area must have their feet sprayed with disinfectant.
Inside the children's tents, a nurse attempts to persuade a listless girl to sip a few drops of a hydrating drink. Other children receive intravenous fluids while their anxious parents sit beside them, monitoring their progress.
Cherenfant says more than 99 percent of those who make it to the hospital survive. It is much more difficult to document what is happening elsewhere.
In the central plateau and other areas, a wide-ranging education effort is under way. People are urged to come to the hospital at the first sign of symptoms. But that's not easy for those who live along deep-rutted roads and lack motor vehicles.
Also, many Haitians simply defecate in fields and, if infected, can spread the disease. At a market fair in a village outside Mirebalais, Mercy Corps showed off a line of portable toilets to promote the concept of using latrines.
The other big push is to encourage villagers to drink treated water and wash their hands before eating. Mercy Corps used music to peddle that message as some hip, young Haitian men led dozens of kids in a raucous dance.
"Wash, wash, wash your hands," they sang, raising their arms.
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