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Haiti: Learning lessons about cholera

It’s my first morning in Haiti and I’m woken up by loud cock-a-doodle-do’s. I’ve had the dangers of cholera drilled into me so I’m careful to brush my teeth with purified water and in the shower I avoid water going into my mouth.

The staff residence I’m staying in is homely and comfortable, Insects are constantly on the move around the guesthouse, and I quickly become used to brushing ants off my laptop. The air is warm already – even at 5am.

I spend the first part of my morning speaking to Sarah Ashraf, the cholera co-ordinator for our Port-au-Prince field office. Sarah moves around from emergency to emergency, staying up to six weeks in any part of the world at short notice.

We talk about the recent protests over the credibility of the election results and Sarah tells me how scared they all were. The guesthouse she was staying in (the one we are in now) is bordered by the main roads used by marching protesters.

Sarah explains that she wasn’t nervous because of the political protests, but because some in the protests were using the chaos as an excuse for violence.

While the protests were happening, the staff here were unable to leave the guesthouse. I ask about what happened with our projects during this time – did we have to close any of our cholera treatment units (CTUs)? No, says Sarah – clinics have to stay open, no matter what.

But logistically it was very hard. With no way to get supplies to the units (roads were blocked by burning tyres and a few demonstrators were throwing rocks and burning abandoned cars) and no way to send in additional staff, our unit staff and the children we were treating were in a difficult situation.

By the third day of the lockdown, Sarah tells me that they were able to send in someone on a motorcycle with supplies, and eventually more staff members could be sent in to relieve the others. By then, the cholera unit staff had worked 36 hours straight.

Sarah tells me that they learnt something from this situation – now the cholera units have more than two weeks supplies at any one time, there are beds and areas available for staff to rest and two teams are able to rotate.

It’s also a lesson that can be applied to other similar emergencies in future.

Working in the cholera treatment units can be upsetting – mothers, scared by cholera and the treatment units, sometimes think it is best to leave their children in the centre alone. So the children often cry out for their mothers.

It is hard to see children suffering from cholera which causes severe diarrhoea and sickness. Cholera beds are designed with holes for the diarrhoea with buckets underneath because it is so constant. It leaves the patient extremely weak.

Also, lots of confusion and misinformation surrounds cholera in Haiti. As the disease is carried by dirty water, prevention is relatively simple – boil water, wash hands with soap.

Getting this message out is hard – cholera has not been seen in Haiti for between 60 and 100 years, and myths and rumours are quick to spring up.

One of the many ways Save the Children is educating the public is through songs in Creole to teach children how to prevent cholera, how to recognise the symptoms and what to do next.

Find out more about our work in Haiti

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