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Haiti: Hello water, hello soap, goodbye germs!

Mark Buttle, our WASH advisor (Water and Sanitation Hygiene) has been in Haiti since before Christmas. Spending Christmas Day visiting cholera treatment units (CTUs) may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but he found it inspiring (and he did manage to fit in a turkey dinner in the evening — cooked by our very own Haiti country director Gary Shaye, who has been working tirelessly in Haiti since April). Mark visited three of our Port-au-Prince treatment units, all based in the camps which provide shelter to thousands of the people affected by the devastating earthquake nearly a year ago.

One child sticks in his mind — a 4-year-old that Mark had seen previously. “He was really sick with cholera before Christmas, unresponsive and weak,” Mark tells me. “But by Christmas Day he was happy and smiling again.” All this thanks to the expertise of our staff and volunteers, working around the clock to both treat and prevent cholera in the overcrowded camps. It’s a happy ending to a sad story — the young boy had lost one brother to cholera already, and his parents were nervous about the cholera treatment units.

This nervousness is common across Haiti and something Save the Children is working to combat. The prevention message is simple, and summed up in posters that we are sticking up everywhere — “bonjou dlo, bonjou savon, orevwa miwkob!” which is Creole for “hello water, hello soap, goodbye germs!”. It is the simple things that will stop people getting cholera.

While Save the Children has one of the larger staff forces, the problem of cholera is more widespread than even we can manage alone, and we rely on volunteers from the community to help us spread this message. Staff members travel to communities, each one training up to 50 volunteers, who in turn can reach several hundred people. It’s a ripple effect that works. Volunteers and staff alike use songs, drama and radio broadcasts to help the message get through. Engaging women with our work is vital — as Mark says, “educate a Haitian woman and you educate a Haitian family.”

Change is happening at higher levels too — the Haitian government has started to chlorinate all the public water systems, effectively cleaning the water, for the first time in the country’s history. It’s a positive start to 2011. Progress is slow, but Save the Children is in it for the long haul.

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