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Haiti: preventing cholera with the help of songs and laughter

At JFK airport the baggage handler said, “Oh, Haiti, was it nice?” I didn’t know how to reply, and in the end decided the truth was needed “It’s full of lovely people,” I replied, “but is still a mess after the earthquake.”

It’s two months, now, since I joined Save the Children UK as Emergency WASH Water, Sanitation and Hygiene Adviser. Water supply, sanitation and hygiene promotion, or WASH, is a fairly recent priority for Save the Children, which in emergencies traditionally focuses on child health, feeding the hungry, child protection and ensuring education is not forgotten even in a crisis.

“So, why the change?” I asked my new boss, Adam Berthoud.

“We’ve always done some water and sanitation work, but Save the Children has realised that it needs to help the whole community if it’s to help children” was his reply, adding, “We’re committed to WASH.”

And so I joined Save the Children’s group of emergency technical advisers, who cover subjects from health, nutrition and livelihooods, to education, child protection, shelter and HIV/AIDS, and was almost immediately sent to Haiti to review water and sanitation work there, responding to the cholera outbreak.

The technical advisers are an impressive bunch: you feel you could drop them on a desert island and they would have a functional community running within days.

“How was Haiti?” they asked, also. “I enjoyed it,” I answered, truthfully. True, also, is that I wish our work could progress more quickly. But with cholera affecting isolated communities, where people simply don’t understand the disease, which is new to Haiti, halting the epidemic was always going to be difficult, and is still work in progress.

In addition to its earthquake response, Save the Children has set up cholera treatment units in four areas of Haiti, and is working to reduce the number of cases by sending out health and hygiene promotion teams into the community.

It’s a tall order: during my visit I accompanied a team into a remote area near Maissade, travelling on foot and by donkey, just to make sure another two villages understood how to protect themselves. We distributed water purification tablets, buckets with taps and lids (so people can store drinking water safely), and soap, emphasising the importance of washing hands properly.

The village meeting was fun, because it needs to be: the all-Haitian team knew that people will be much happier to attend, and will learn more, if songs, role plays and laughter are used to spread serious messages.

Now back in London, its time to take stock. I need to stay in touch with the Haiti programme, who have since requested my assistance on funding proposals and technical issues, while getting to know Save the Children’s other programme’s. “How would you like to go to Pakistan?” Adam keeps asking.

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