Q&A: Cholera 'a devastating blow' in Haiti, relief worker saysby Tom Crann, Minnesota Public Radio
St. Paul, Minn. — The rebuilding of Haiti following the January earthquake continues, despite a cholera outbreak and flooding caused by Hurricane Tomas.
Cholera has now spread into Haiti's capital of Port-au-Prince after being kept at bay since the outbreak began in October. A 3-year-old boy who had not been out of the city tested positive for the disease. Cholera has taken the lives of at least 544 people in Haiti.
Officials are concerned that floods triggered by Hurricane Tomas on Friday and Saturday could worsen the spread of the disease, which is often spread through water.
Deb Ingersoll, who works for the American Refugee Committee in Haiti, discussed the relief efforts Tuesday with MPR's Tom Crann.
Tom Crann: How big of a setback is the spread of cholera and the fact that it has now reached the capitol?
Deb Ingersoll: Well, it is a devastating blow to Haiti when we were starting to get some momentum from the earthquake relief, having a new disease which hasn't been in Haiti for a very long time appear and unfortunately spread to most of the country.
It started in the middle of the country and, as you said, made its way to Port-au-Prince recently. It's a big setback, but we're very focused on prevention and have put a lot of different plans into place to make sure that we can contain the disease.
Crann: Tell us what you're doing in that regard when it comes to prevention.
Ingersoll: The American Refugee Committee, we've been working on hygiene messaging for many months now, and what that means in the camps that we manage is having people actually posted at the latrines in the camps and providing people both a place to wash their hands with clean water and soap, as well as, as I mentioned, the messaging.
And that messaging focuses around why it's important to wash your hands. There are songs that the hygiene promoters teach to little kids to help them understand how long they need to wash their hands and how important it is, and so that hand washing message has just grown since the cholera outbreak. And we're now taking it out of the camps and spreading it around to a lot of the neighborhoods as well. And I know, working with other aid organizations, they're all doing the same.
Crann: What about Hurricane Tomas? Tell us about its effects when you were in Port-au-Prince there during the hurricane.
Ingersoll: The biggest problem that happened with Tomas was not necessarily the results of the storm itself, but in taking the focus away from our cholera messaging and making sure that we kept people focused on how to stay safe from that. So the hurricane itself fortunately didn't do as much damage as anticipated, but more water, more flooding leads to the possibility of spreading the water that was diseased or contained the disease, as well as more standing water and just the focus shifted away from actual cholera itself. And of course, getting back to the main reason why a lot of us are here and that is the earthquake and trying to help put people back into their homes and help them get back to a better life.
Crann: Where did you hope to be with the rebuilding effort, let's say, a few months down the line or even a year from now?
Ingersoll: For aid organizations overall, the focus is really on helping people return to their communities, on one level, and then also helping the government to become a stronger, more self-sufficient model. And of course, it depends on where you are in the work that you do as to how much you can affect that. For me personally, I focus on the people that I interact with every day and it helps me stay sane to just be able to say, 'Here are the things that I hope to get done.'
For me within the next few months, I really want to make sure that people are starting to hear the message about why they need to leave the camp, why the camp is not necessarily a good place to stay, and help them to start making their own decisions and conclusions about what they're going to do next, and then provide some of that assistance.
(Interview transcribed and edited by MPR reporter Madeleine Baran)
- All Things Considered, 11/09/2010, 5:50 p.m.