In early September, 29 community health workers (CHWs) began using Nokia cell phones as the latest tool in the fight against cholera. The specially programmed phones help track information about cholera patients in isolated communities throughout Haiti’s Central Plateau – an important step in gathering the up-to-date infection data that could prevent more deaths. 

patients waiting for care

CHWs learning how to use the new data collection program.

In the isolated mountain communities of Boucan Carre, where thousands of people have become sick since early June, CHWs must walk 6 or more hours to submit weekly cholera reports from outlying communities. Receiving accurate and timely data is incredibly challenging – and the rainy season has made it that much harder.

“Receiving real time cholera information from CHWs is crucial,” says Cate Oswald, PIH’s Haiti-based program coordinator for community health. “We need accurate and up-to-date reports in order to best prevent more cases and respond to quick spread of the epidemic.”

Following the spread of cholera – a disease that can kill within 24 hours of infection – is crucial to saving lives.

In August PIH/ZL sites saw a slight decline in new infections, impart because of particularly dry weather. Heavy rains in early September will likely reverse that trend.

Launched in an isolated region of Boucan Carre, PIH/ZL began training the first group of CHWs how to use the phones in early July. With funding from the World Bank, PIH/ZL has purchased 120 phones for the pilot program, and service will be supplied by Caribbean-based cell provider Digicel.

patients waiting for care

Once started, the program asks CHWs a series of simple questions to help determine how many sick people might be living in a household.

“Prompts are in Haitian Creole and user friendly, allowing CHWs to input data about soap, Aquatabs, Clorox, oral rehydration solution,” says Rony Charles, a member of the PIH/ZL medical informatics team who developed the software for the phones. “But they also provide data on the numbers of people sick with cholera, the number who have made it to the treatment center, and the number that have died.”

“It is our hope that this project will help us have better access to incredibly important community data and will help us know which communities need extra support at any given moment,” says Cate. “Our nursing and psychosocial teams are very excited about the prospects of the project, as are the CHWs.”

As with most communities where PIH/ZL works, CHWs lack electricity. PIH/ZL have partnered with Earthspark, a local group making solar lanterns that can charge cell phones. Each CHW will receive a lantern.

Cate concluded optimistically: “This will greatly enhance our ability to save lives in rural and isolated communities.”

Since the first cholera cases were reported last October, just over 440,000 Haitians have contracted the disease and nearly 6,300 have died.

Learn more about PIH/ZL’s cholera response.