As Christmas brings people together in Haiti and other countries around the world, cholera may spread even more rapidly, warns Action Against Hunger, a non-profit leader working to address the dangerous relationship between the growing epidemic of cholera, malnutrition, and violence.
“The holidays should be an uplifting time. Yet, in Haiti this year, Christmas may bring the unwanted ‘gift’ of cholera as more people share contaminated food and guests overwhelm household sanitation,” said Roseval Supreme, Country Director for Action Against Hunger in Haiti. “As the holidays approach and safety in Haiti deteriorates, many urban residents are fleeing to family in rural areas ill-equipped to handle the influx.”
Cholera is a bacteria that easily spreads through contaminated water and food and causes dehydration due to diarrhea and vomiting. In severe cases, rapid dehydration can lead to cardiac arrest and death. The risk is particularly high for malnourished patients and children, who represent approximately 40% of the cases in Haiti.
For the first time in history, the most severe level of hunger crisis (IPC level 5) has been recorded in Haiti, where 19,000 people currently face famine-like conditions, and hunger continues to grow. In addition, more than 35% of Haiti’s population lacks access to safe drinking water and 65% have limited or no sanitation services.
Ninety percent of Haiti’s cholera cases are in areas where people are suffering from acute malnutrition, which weakens the immune system and makes them more susceptible to disease. Cholera can spread even after death and is so virulent that even one case is considered an outbreak. While both cholera and malnutrition are treatable, extreme poverty and violence are preventing many families from reaching help before it’s too late.
Gangs have cut off the fuel that runs power infrastructure, water pumps, and the trucks that bring emergency water and hygiene supplies to most residents, as well as emergency aid. Access to food, clean water, sanitation services and healthcare is all but impossible for tens of thousands of Haitians.
Action Against Hunger has a proven, three-pronged approach to tackling the spread of cholera in Haiti: sanitation education, prevention, and treatment. Supreme’s team spearheaded the organization’s response that helped to successfully eradicate cholera in Haiti a few years ago. Now, it is partnering with the Ministry of Health to implement hygiene education, set up handwashing stations, and is providing safe, clean water and water treatment tabs. It is treating cases with oral rehydration pills, yet treatment centers don’t have sufficient supplies or beds to handle the surge of patients.
“Sadly, unless relief efforts expand rapidly, what many children in Haiti will get for Christmas this year is the potentially deadly combination of cholera, hunger, and violence. Cholera has reemerged in Haiti at the worst possible moment, and I fear more children will die before they get to ring in the new year,” said Supreme.
Cholera has re-emerged after a coordinated global campaign eliminated the disease in 2019. The previous epidemic killed nearly 10,000 people.
Growing fears about the emergency in Haiti come as the world is experiencing the highest-ever number of cholera outbreaks, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Cholera is jeopardizing the health of millions and threatening to overwhelm health systems that are fragile or failing.