Almost two years after the deadly disease first appeared in Haiti in the aftermath of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, the story of cholera is one of both success and failure.
The success? Statistically, the death rate has been beaten back to below 1 per cent from its peak of 9 per cent in December 2010. Fewer people are contracting the disease. Those who do are quicker to seek treatment. The initial stigma around the disease has dissipated.
Much of that success, though, stems from the frenzied work of aid groups that jumped into action, setting up treatment centres in refugee camps, organizing community brigades in the countryside and dispersing basic prevention supplies, such as soap and chlorine tablets.
Right after the outbreak, these aid groups were flush with money. Since then, however, their donations have dried up and most have ended their cholera programs. In the central province of Artibonite, for example, the 22 organizations that worked on cholera last year have dwindled to seven.
Last week, U.N. chief Ban Ki-moon warned that the number of cholera cases was again growing in Haiti, citing a World Health Organization prediction that there could be 112,000 cases in 2012.
In most instances, the Haitian government has not picked up the work that had been done by departing aid agencies. That was evident this past April, during the rainy season, when cholera infections traditionally spike.
“If we weren’t here in April, it would literally have been a disaster,” says Oliver Schulz, the chief of mission for Medecins Sans Frontiers (Doctors Without Borders), which runs the centre treating Castin. “We treated 72 per cent of the cases of cholera in Port-au-Prince and Leogane — around 10,000. Other organizations were shutting down their centres and referring patients to us.
“This shouldn’t be our role. We are an emergency medical organization. Two years after the outbreak, the government should be running these centres,” he says.
Compared to the peak of the outbreak, when more than 2,400 people arrived at cholera clinics every day, 10,000 cases might seem like progress. But, Haiti — a country of only 10 million — has more cases of cholera than all of Africa, Schulz points out. Any river seems languid compared to a waterfall.
One year before cholera appeared in Haiti, there were around 221,000 reported cases and 4,950 deaths to cholera globally, according to the World Health Organization. In less than two years, little Haiti has seen more than 586,000 cases and 7,500 deaths to cholera.
“Normally, with 1,000 cases, you think ‘epidemic,’” Schulz says. “How come everyone thinks it’s fine here?”