Haiti braces for post-hurricane cholera outbreak, a ‘potential humanitarian disaster‘

Haitian doctor reads a patients chart during that nation's cholera outbreak. (Creative Commons)

After Hurricane Matthew slashed through the impoverished nation of Haiti on Tuesday, leaving death and destruction its wake, the country may be facing another deadly crisis: a surge in cholera.

The top United Nations official in Haiti, Mourad Wahba, described the Category 4 storm as “the largest humanitarian event” in the impoverished country since the devastating earthquake of 2010. After six years, the country of 11 million is still recovering from the disaster, with 55,000 people living outdoors or in shelters.

Following the 7.0-magnitude earthquake, a cholera outbreak linked to U.N. peacekeepers killed more than 6,000 Haitians and sickened more than 470,000 to date. Cholera is an infectious disease spread through contaminated water that causes severe watery diarrhea and dehydration and can lead to death in just a few hours.

The waterborne illness is now a top concern in areas ravaged by this week’s storm; aid organizations are deeply worried about safe drinking water supplies.

The hurricane “has the potential to be a big setback for years of efforts to bring cholera under control,” Jessica Pearl, Mercy Corps Haiti country director, told the New York Times. “The people here have just been pushed down by one thing after another.”

Authorities are particularly concerned about flooding from the hurricane, since Haiti doesn’t have the sewage and irrigation systems to manage the resulting mixture of water and sewage in highly populated areas.

“Unfortunately cholera’s endemic in the country now, so any time you have an increase in rain, you will have an increase in cholera,” said Joanna Cherry, chief medical officer at a hospital in Port-Au-Prince, in an interview with NPR. “I feel like we’re looking at a potential humanitarian disaster just from the infectious disease outbreak that could come from this volume of water.”

The United Nations has voiced concerns about the more than 4 million children who could be affected by the hurricane and who are particularly vulnerable during such an outbreak.

“Waterborne diseases are the first threat to children in similar situations – our first priority is to make sure children have enough safe water,” said Marc Vincent, UNICEF’s representative in Haiti, in a statement Tuesday.

The full extent of the hurricane’s damage on Haiti will remain unclear until response teams are able to access the most affected areas, Oxfam said in a statement, but already official and eyewitness reports have determined that the southern tip of the country has suffered the worst flooding and has the highest humanitarian need.

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The storm was the most powerful Caribbean hurricane in nearly a decade and has killed at least 2 people in Haiti and displaced thousands as rescuers struggle to access the worst-hit areas. Heavy rains and winds of up to 145 mph uprooted trees, destroyed homes across the southern part of the country and paralyzed the transportation system.

First response workers are focusing their efforts on rescuing people trapped under debris, evacuating people from houses threatened with collapse, and providing first aid and meals in evacuation centers. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has deployed a disaster response team to Haiti, Jamaica and the Bahamas and is providing $400,000 for rapid, critical relief to those affected by the storm.  

The storm brushed past the eastern tip of Cuba last night and is approaching the Bahamas later today. Florida, Georgia and other areas in the southeastern U.S. are bracing for the storm with warnings in place, with South Carolina prepared to start evacuating more than a million people.

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Lisa Nikolau

Lisa Nikolau is a Madrid-based reporter for Humanosphere, covering gender equality, indigenous rights and poverty in Latin America and worldwide. Find her on Twitter at @lisanikolau, email lisa.nikolau@humanosphere.org or see her latest work at www.lisanikolau.com