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Washing hands is a potent weapon in post-earthquake Haiti

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Last month I met a young man named Sady Civil in Port-au-Prince at a camp called Delmas 3 where he is an assistant public health promoter. His job is to teach people the importance of good hygiene as a means to avoid major disease outbreaks, which can kill just as many people as any earthquake.

When he first arrived, there were about 7,000 people living in Delmas 3. “It was very dirty, there were feces everywhere,” he says, walking along the main road next to the camp. On the day we visited workers were digging several large pits to install 16 new permanent latrines. This would make roughly one latrine for every 110 camp residents, still not enough, but an improvement.

“It’s a lot cleaner here now,” Civil says. “We’ve seen a lot of good changes.”

Along with building 2,500 latrines in camps around Port-au-Prince, Oxfam began delivering 79 million gallons of clean water a month to people living in camps like Delmas 3. But people also need soap to wash their hands with the clean water after they use the toilet. So Oxfam has also distributed soap and towels and buckets.

Helping people get what they need to keep clean is one thing, but actually washing your hands after using the toilet is a personal decision. So Oxfam also works with camp residents to teach people the importance of good hygiene.

Civil recruited about a dozen young people in Delmas 3 to help him. One of his projects involved collecting plastic bottles, and using them to build an ingenious fence to protect one of the tap stands distributing water stored in a bladder. Civil used the space to transmit some important messages to the camp residents. He got a young artist named Julien Emmanuel to paint the fence and carefully spell out the messages: “Don’t waste water, each drop is precious,” and “Always wash your hands to avoid cholera” were two of them.

Julien Emmanuel painted the fence around the tapstand at Delmas 3. Photo by Chris Hufstader.
Julien Emmanuel painted the fence around the tapstand at Delmas 3. Photo by Chris Hufstader.

Hand washing is essential, and Civil says it has made a difference in Delmas 3. “We are monitoring household health, and we had a lot of diarrhea cases. We informed mothers’ groups and others about the importance of keeping clean, and we can see the diarrhea cases are fewer.”

These improved hygiene habits in Delmas 3 will help the camp withstand a cholera epidemic that started in areas that were not affected by the earthquake, but has killed more than 3,000 people in Haiti. Civil and other health promoters are working hard to ensure that the few cases of cholera around Port-au-Prince do not turn into thousands in the camps housing earthquake survivors. If everyone washes their hands, cholera is not likely to spread. Oxfam is currently extending its effort to prevent cholera, including hygiene promotion, to 700,000 people across Haiti, adding to a current caseload of  500,000 people at risk in the camps around Port-au-Prince.

We asked Civil about famous Haitian proverbs, and he said there is one he is fighting to prove wrong: “Ti microbe pa tiye Haytien.” Microbacteria can’t kill a Haitian. “It’s not true,” Civil says. “Just look at cholera.”

Sady Civil is a hygiene promoter at the Delmas 3 camp in Port-au-Prince. Phot by Chris Hufstader.
Sady Civil is a hygiene promoter at the Delmas 3 camp in Port-au-Prince. Photo by Chris Hufstader.

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