The arduous task of rebuilding Haiti from January’s devastating earthquake has become more complicated in recent days by an outbreak of cholera in the Artibonite region of central Haiti. About 260 people have died from the water-borne disease and there have been mixed reports as to how much of a danger there is of it spreading to the overflowing refugee camps in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
Relief agencies, already dealing with the daily struggle of meeting the demands of the recovery, aren’t taking any chances.
Among them is Samaritan’s Purse, the Christian non-profit headed by Franklin Graham. The organization’s country director, Matt Ellingson, spoke with Everyday Christian from Port-au-Prince this morning about the concerns of a crisis, rebuilding and the resiliency of the Haitian people.
EDC: There have been some conflicting media reports as to how widespread the cholera is and how quickly it is spread. What is the scope and magnitude of it at this point?
Ellingson: It is still a very serious situation. I have heard reports from different parts of the country that are far away from the area where this first happened that they aren’t seeing anything, which is good and not surprising. Yet, the U.N.’s perspective from today is to treat this as a serious outbreak and it matches what our epidemiologists and medical people here in the country are saying.
We experienced a downtick in reported cases on Sunday, but we don’t feel like it’s the right time to say we have tackled this thing. We have a lot of people in horrible, horrible conditions and a climate with lots of flooding and standing water everywhere which is just ripe for problems. We hope and pray that the positive reports are true, but we are looking at things as still critical. We have an enormous amount of effort going forward toward training and information sharing.
EDC: What have you been doing in Haiti even before the cholera outbreak to make sure people have clean water?
Ellingson: We have 10,000 shelters across the earthquake shelters across the earthquake-affected areas and they provide sanitary latrines, water and nutritional training. This particular outbreak is about 150 kilometers (93 miles) north of Port-au-Prince and appears to be marching its way down the coast from one river valley to the next. These are quite separated geographical areas.
EDC: Is it difficult to say the impact it is going to have on Port-au-Prince because the areas which it’s moving through aren’t that densely populated?
Ellingson: It is quite difficult to predict what will happen. What we saw early were people who became ill in the St. Marc (Artibonite) area of the country and traveled to different hospitals in other parts of the country. Recently we have seen people getting sick in other locations which indicate the contamination of the water is indeed moving. St. Marc is a medium to small-sized city and the surrounding area is a very broad flat river basin with rice paddies. Between here and there, there is a very arid zone, so there is a natural boundary that might help slow the spread. It is difficult to tell still because we are being told the rainy season will be lasting for at least three more weeks into November and that is when there may be the most risk.
EDC: How do you now work with the U.N. and other relief organizations to make sure you have the best coverage possible under the circumstances?
Ellingson: Samaritan’s Purse has been working closely with United Nations and many other agencies and there has been quite a robust response. From our perspective there is a Haitian proverb that has been shared within our staff here that has real meaning which is “prevention is better than the cure,” loosely translated. We are really aiming at that. Our medical people are right in the middle of the outbreak and coordinating with many other organizations.
EDC: Is the recovery process there still fragile enough that something like this has the potential to really set things back even further than everyone would like?
Ellingson: Absolutely. Haiti was a poor place to begin with. People are already living close to the margins. Cholera getting into the water systems of a city where there are lots of people living right on top of each other in difficult conditions is a scary thing. It’s scary in that not many people understand how you get cholera, how you treat it and so on. … This is such a different thing because what you’re battling is invisible. It starts hitting people’s minds and they’re not sure what to be scared of.
There are a lot of people wearing masks like we saw with the H1N1 concerns. There’s not much danger at all of this being airborne, but people just don’t know what to do. The medical health infrastructure to begin with wasn’t very good here and this just adds another stress on the system. What I will say, though, is the work of our staff here and the Haitian people to absorb this is just amazing. I’m inspired.