First Person

In Haiti: fighting cholera with education and clean water

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Workers handle buckets to help with Oxfam's cholera response in Haiti. Photo by Julie Schindall/Oxfam
Workers handle buckets to help with Oxfam's cholera response in Haiti. Photo by Julie Schindall/Oxfam

Julie Schindall, an Oxfam press officer, traveled to Haiti’s cholera-stricken province of Artibonite on Sunday. Here’s what she saw.

In central Haiti, the Artibonite province is awash in water. Driving through the cholera-stricken region on Sunday—day three of our emergency cholera response—I see water everywhere: rice paddies, irrigation canals, small rivers, cesspools, and puddles.

As we head inland toward our work site, we stop for directions. I hop out of the car to take a phone call. As I speak on live radio to audiences in the UK, I look down and see a dead pig lying in stagnant water. A few yards away a mother washes clothes as her naked children play in the yard. The heat burns my neck, and I stare, transfixed, at all this water. None of it is safe to drink.

Even before the disastrous quake of January 12, fewer than 20 percent of Haitians had access to a toilet. Only half had safe drinking water. These statistics run through my head as we roll down the road to reach our team of public health experts dispatched to Petite Riviere, population 100,000.

I’ve lived in Haiti for seven months, sent here as part of the Oxfam earthquake response. Each day here I confront poverty and inequality. But today, in the cholera zone of Artibonite, in the midst of the latest Haitian emergency, I feel angry. This is the “rice basket” of Haiti. President René Preval comes from this region. Yet, here in Artibonite, most people don’t have a private, sanitary place to poop and they rely on a dirty river as one of their sources of drinking water.

A small crowd has gathered in front of a broken-down concrete house on the country road. Oxfam public health experts are negotiating a contract with a local radio station. We’ll be broadcasting messages about safe hygiene practices, like hand washing, to 100,000 people by the end of the evening. I approach Jane, our lead public health specialist, and ask her how it’s going.

“It’s going to be ok. We have a lot of education to do, but it’s going to be fine,” she says calmly.

Jane has years of experience working in countries around the world, and this is certainly not the first time she’s seen a cholera outbreak. She runs down a list of planned activities: distributions today and tomorrow of soap, oral rehydration salts and water purification tablets to reach 40,000 people, training community leaders about good hygiene practices so they can go back and train their friends and neighbors, repair of wells and purification of natural water sources.

A few hours later, we gather at our new supply warehouse—a rice processing facility the community offered to us to help stop the spread of cholera. Dozens of men from the neighborhood have gathered to unload the truck filled with buckets and soap; they stand in an excited huddle, many without shoes, as our staff call out directions.

Our last stop before heading back to Port-au-Prince is the hospital at St. Marc, where hundreds of sick people flocked in the first 48 hours of the outbreak. In the fading afternoon light today, however, the hospital is quiet and calm. Doctors and nurses, speaking softly, moving along orderly rows of beds. A man with a megaphone is broadcasting messages encouraging hand washing and eating only cooked food. As we walk through the chlorine foot bath and back to the car, our water and sanitation advisor nods his head with satisfaction.

 “We’ll stop this cholera,” he says. “This disease can’t beat us.” Facebook Twitter Instagram YouTube Google+