Three years since cholera broke out in Haiti, prevention and treatment efforts have helped control the epidemic, but the disease is far from gone.
An infectious disease that causes vomiting and diarrhea, cholera can lead to deadly dehydration in as little as 24 hours. In Haiti, where most people lack access to clean water and sanitation, cholera spread rapidly through waterways, accelerated by heavy rains and flooding. Since it appeared on Oct. 19, 2010, it has killed more than 8,000 people and caused about 650,000 cases, sickening approximately one in 15 Haitians.
Haiti’s Ministry of Health and aid groups responded quickly to help control the epidemic. Partners In Health, with our Haitian sister organization, Zanmi Lasante (PIH/ZL), has treated more than 105,000 cases in the Central Plateau, representing almost one-sixth of total cholera cases in Haiti. Cholera has declined since the peak of the epidemic, but persists: Last month, PIH providers treated more than 1,700 cases in clinics and hospitals. Meanwhile, funding for cholera prevention and treatment has diminished since the initial emergency.
“We’re making progress, and we know what we’re doing,” said Dr. Louise Ivers, senior health and policy advisor for Partners In Health, who reported some of the earliest cases of cholera in Haiti. “We need funds to keep a sustained response going.”
The governments of Haiti and the Dominican Republic have created a 10-year strategy to eliminate cholera from the island of Hispaniola, which they share. Haiti, which has seen the vast majority of cases, has called for a comprehensive response, including short-term measures such as vaccination, to stay the disease during the long-term work of building latrines and piped water systems.
Still, funding to put the plans into action has come up short. Donors have committed only about $30 million of the proposed $2.2 billion plan.
“We have the opportunity now, as cholera is decreasing, to invest in building water and sanitation systems to prevent the kind of outbreak that we had in 2010,” said Dr. Ralph Ternier, director of community care and support for PIH/ZL. “Cholera has killed so many people these past three years. We shouldn’t forget that.”
Cholera cases have continued to spike throughout the epidemic with increases in rainfall, both during the spring rainy season and in the tropical weather season in the late summer and fall. Just a few weeks ago, heavy rains caused severe flooding in a community near Mirebalais in the Central Plateau. About 120 families lost their homes and crops in the floods. A PIH/ZL team responded the following morning, distributing chlorine and buckets to disinfect drinking water, oral rehydration solution to treat dehydration from cholera, and materials to improve hygiene.
Ternier said the PIH/ZL clinic in Lascahobas has been overwhelmed by cases lately. Many people in that area don’t have latrines, which creates conditions ripe for transmission.
“That shows you the fight is really not behind us,” Ternier said.
Over the course of the epidemic, PIH has monitored cholera cases and deaths to improve care and target vulnerable communities with additional prevention and treatment. Data have shown a decrease in the number of cholera patients who died. In the first two and a half years, about 1 percent of cholera patients that came to PIH clinics died. In the last year, that figure dropped by half to .6 percent, demonstrating that it’s possible to manage cholera with a very low fatality rate in Haiti. PIH’s work to monitor cholera data and use it to improve care will be presented at the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association in November.
Partners In Health has advocated for a comprehensive response to the epidemic since its start, including the use of vaccination, publishing these views in The Lancet. In early 2012, in partnership with the Haitian Ministry of Health, PIH delivered the vaccine to two rural communities hard-hit by cholera in the Artibonite region. The successful results of this project were recently published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene.
With evidence from PIH’s vaccination project, the World Health Organization recommended in 2012 to expand access to the vaccine in Haiti and the Dominican Republic. The Haitian Ministry of Health has also conducted targeted vaccination campaigns in the Central Plateau and the north of Haiti.
Vaccination is just one part of a comprehensive response that also includes improvements to water and sanitation systems and health care facilities where people can receive treatment.
“We have to take care of cholera, and we also have to take care of other diarrheal diseases,” Ivers said. “We need to ensure that funding to support cholera treatment and prevention is also used to strengthen the health system as a whole. Only a strong health system is going to be able to deal with cases of cholera as they come.”