When cholera arrived in Haiti two years ago, it spread through communities quickly, killing some of the most vulnerable people in just one day. In mid-October 2010, staff at Zanmi Lasante, Partners In Health’s sister organization, saw the first case of cholera in the town of Mirebalais. Since then, the outbreak has killed more than 7,500 people, sickened more than 600,000, and become one of the world’s largest epidemics in recent history.
This two-year mark of the cholera outbreak can serve as a turning point in Haiti’s battle against the epidemic.
We can continue our commitment to treating victims, educating communities, vaccinating citizens, and advocating for a nationwide water and sanitation system, or we can accept needless deaths as the new norm. It is important to remember that Haiti had not seen a case of cholera prior to October 2010.
We have made great progress in addressing cholera through emergency funding from international donors, support from individual donors, and determination from our staff. When the outbreak began, PIH/ZL mobilized an extensive network of community health workers, nurses, and physicians who have now treated more than 100,000 patients. PIH/ZL opened 11 cholera treatment facilities and hired and trained more than 3,300 community health workers to identify and treat cases of cholera and run public hygiene education campaigns. PIH/ZL psychosocial and mental health teams also counseled and conducted memorial services for more than 4,000 families who lost loved ones to cholera or suffered from stigma associated with the disease.
In the spring of 2012, determination and planning led to a big step in preventing the spread of cholera. PIH/ZL, Haiti’s Ministry of Health, and the nonprofit organization GHESKIO successfully vaccinated nearly 100,000 people. Just months later, The Pan American Health Organization’s Technical Advisory Group on Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (PAHO TAG) recommended expanding the use of the oral cholera vaccine throughout Haiti, based in part on data presented by PIH/ZL and GHESKIO officials.
Fortunately, reported cholera deaths have decreased nationwide within the last year of the epidemic. From October 2010 to September 2011, cholera killed 6,510 people—from September 2011 to the present, cholera has killed 1,025. But because of this, the urgency to address the outbreak—and the funding that came with it—is coming to an end. If we continue treating cases at the rate we are now, our dedicated cholera funding will be exhausted in February. We have no new funds on the horizon.
Cholera remains a leading cause of death among young adults in Haiti and cases continue to spike during rainy periods. In July, cholera sickened 5,600 people across the country, and in September PIH/ZL staff treated 900 people. According to our doctors, these spikes have potential for real danger: fewer staff members available to treat a sudden influx of patients can lead to an increase in deaths. The disease moves so rapidly that in the one or two days it takes for reinforcement staff to arrive, patients can die. Also, fewer treatment centers means fewer patients can be treated.
Just this month, Partners In Health and Zanmi Lasante became the newest members of the Regional Coalition on Water and Sanitation for the Elimination of Cholera in the Island of Hispaniola. This is because we remain committed to a multi-tiered approach to managing cholera: aggressive case findings and treatment, expanding access to the cholera vaccine, and providing access to safe drinking water and sanitation.
If cholera is here to stay in Haiti, so too must be funding for this kind of comprehensive prevention and treatment. Without it, we may lose the gains we’ve made. Join us—we need your support.