Four Ways to Fight the Cholera Outbreak in Haiti

October 28, 2010


by Joanna and Rusty Pritchard

[Ed. note: This article is part of our weekly series of church activities, called Cultivating Community, published on Thursdays.]

A Haitian girl in the La Piste camp.

Many Haitians who survived the earthquake are now threatened by a cholera outbreak. (cc image courtesy British Red Cross via flickr)

Depressing news on the phone this morning: a colleague in Haiti sent a team of nurses into the mountains far from any big population centers, and they returned with news of 37 deaths from suspected cholera. That indicates the outbreak may be far more widespread than previously thought.

Already we’re hearing of people wanting to help. Knowing a little about cholera and about the situation in Haiti is useful in deciding how to help. Here are our suggestions:

1. Stay, for now. Our first response when touched deeply by a tragedy is to want to help with our own hands. But, as with the earthquake recovery efforts, Haiti doesn’t need unskilled foreign laborers who care deeply about Haitian people. Unless you have specific relevant skills and coordinate with a specific organization already working in Haiti, focus on what you can do best: raise awareness and funds among your circle of influence. Get creative with fundraising and awareness-raising. Use social networking and “real” networking. Don’t try to assemble a team unless you have a specific organization in Haiti to coordinate closely with. In addition to sanitation or medical skills, people on the ground there also need to have in-country expertise, knowledge of and contacts with the earthquake refugee camp coordination system (if working in Port-au-Prince), Haitian Creole or French language skills and/or translators, security training, and transportation (vehicles are scarce in Haiti, and you can’t count on renting a car at the airport).

It’s not just that Haiti doesn’t need unskilled volunteers—it’s also that there are hundreds of thousands of Haitian people whose jobs and businesses were lost in the earthquake. If we can resist the temptation to go ourselves, our donations can be used not just to deal with the disease outbreak, but to provide important paid jobs to hospital workers, drivers, technicians, cooks, cleaners, construction workers, and outreach workers. Minimum wage in Haiti is $5/day. Imagine how long a Haitian family could be supported with the cost of your ticket alone. When we send funds instead of volunteers, our donations have the double impact of solving the problem and restoring the Haitian economy.

2. Give: The most efficient response may be to donate funds to an agency working specifically on water/sanitation such as World Vision, Operation Blessing, Samaritan’s Purse or CARE. Secular medical agencies such as Doctors without Borders or Partners in Health are also excellent organizations with on-the-ground capacity to fight cholera. Most of these organizations’ web sites will have specific references to the cholera outbreak in Haiti and how to give.

3. Inform: You might have relationships with missionaries or aid workers already in Haiti. They probably are informed

Boys in a Haitian refugee camp.

Conditions in the Port-au-Prince camps are dire. (cc image courtesy British Red Cross via flickr)

about the cholera outbreak and what to do about it, but if they work for a small organization with a limited budget, you may be able to help. There are some very useful cholera factsheets in Creole (and Spanish, French, and English) from Hesperian, the organization that publishes the classic Where There is No Doctor (also downloadable in Creole for free). These address, in simple language, prevention of the spread of cholera, and treatment for those infected. Treatment is often as easy as giving the victims Oral Rehydration Salts to replace the massive amounts of fluid lost in the watery diarrhea caused by the cholera. The Oral Rehydration Salts can be widely found in Haiti, and the Hesperian factsheet includes a recipe for making them from scratch. It also includes other preventive measures, like the construction of an emergency pit latrine. The document is in Haitian Creole so it’s ready to distribute and use in outreach.

4. Sustain: If your heart is broken about the compound tragedies afflicting the Haitian people, then think of ways to sustain the good work going on there. “Water insecurity” is at the heart of the cholera outbreak. Water security is a combination of two things: built infrastructure such as wells, spring caps, latrines and drainage plus ecosystem health that allows the groundwater to be recharged so that springs and wells don’t dry up. In Haiti this means reforestation on hillsides—the simple

Plant With Purpose seedlings for reforestation.

How can reforestation help prevent cholera outbreaks? (image courtesy Plant With Purpose)

fact that without trees, the water doesn’t soak in. Without trees on the hills (and 75% of Haiti is sloping highland terrain) the rain slides off in sheets, taking precious topsoil with it in a spiral of floods, destruction, and lost capacity. Area springs and wells are recharged by rainfall—but only if the force of the rain is slowed by vegetation whose leaves shield the ground from torrential rain and clings to the soil with its roots. Reforestation isn’t just about CO2, it’s about protecting clean water and conserving the soil that supports the food supply.

In addition to supporting organizations restoring the environment, such as Plant With Purpose, consider supporting organizations creating sustainable livelihoods in agriculture, trade, and business, and also supporting education—which is not free in Haiti and therefore many children don’t attend school. Again, large organizations such as World Vision and CARE do great work on the ground. A smaller organization making a difference in education is Haiti Partners.

In addition to the country’s widespread poverty, the situation in the Port-au-Prince camps is truly terrible, and anything you can do to sustain people’s generosity towards Haiti is significant. The problems are immense and many of these fundamental health and sanitation issues will only be solved by large-scale investments at the governmental level, but small-scale efforts are also really important and have a meaningful impact on the lives of individuals. There are many communities who remain untouched by large-scale interventions and that are vulnerable and without a safety net when tragedy strikes.

Related Posts at Flourish
The Real Truth About Haiti and What Your Church Can Do Now and in the Future
Slurp a Little Soup to Help Haiti Rebuild

Joanna and Rusty Pritchard work with Flourish. Joanna just returned from six weeks in the Artibonite, center of the current cholera outbreak, where the poverty, lack of sanitation, and lack of medical care are indeed acute. Before that she was based in Port au Prince since March. During the summer both Rusty and Joanna were in Haiti working on a long-term foreign-aid-funded infrastructure development program. The shock of the disparity between here and there remains sharp every time we go back and forth between the USA and Haiti. This past weekend flying out of Port-au-Prince the profound wrong-ness of the situation was almost overwhelming. Caring enough to keep the support flowing is an act of mercy and justice.

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