Cholera Reaches Haiti's Capital | WAMU 88.5 - American University Radio

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Cholera Reaches Haiti's Capital

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The government of Haiti says more than 14,000 people in the country have been infected with cholera. The official death toll there has topped 917. Over the past week, the epidemic has reached the capital city, Port-au-Prince.

Alcide Gesmain's daughter lies on a cot in the Waf Jeremy Clinic in Cite Soleil, Port-au-Prince's largest slum.

"She's got cholera. Today around 5 a.m. she had a bellyache," he says.

The bellyache turned to diarrhea, and then vomiting. She fainted on the way to the clinic, and had to be carried inside.

"Since she's at the hospital, only God knows what's gonna happen," the translator says.

Nine hours later, she's still vomiting.

"It's becoming bigger," says Sister Marcella Catozza, a Franciscan nun who runs the Wharf Jeremie Clinic. "I arrived here [at] seven o'clock in the morning and I had two dead people in front [of the clinic]."

The place smells like chlorine. Anyone who goes in or out has to walk through a tray of bleach and water. The floors are constantly being mopped.

Last week, Marcella says, about 60 people a day were showing up with symptoms of cholera, and the majority of them so sick that they were quickly sent off to a hospital. Now, that number has doubled. She has seen 12 people die at her clinic so far.

"And the cases I sent to the hospital--I don't know if they are still alive or not," Marcella says.

Outside the clinic, shacks made of sheet metal and tarps sprawl for miles, with just the tiniest of alleyways between them -- just big enough for a person, or the odd goat or pig. Human waste litters the ridges at the edge of the settlement. Pigs wallow in the fetid streams. There is no source of truly clean drinking water here.

"It is impossible to stop an infection in these conditions," Marcella says.

A lot of mystery surrounds the disease here. Benicia Luis is fixing fried chicken for dinner in her home. She and her children all have white paste smeared on their upper lips. It's toothpaste.

Luis says some people who died of cholera were buried in the area. She fears pigs have dug up the corpses and that's tainted the air. The toothpaste, she believes, will protect her from cholera.

Marcella says aid groups have been afraid to enter this slum due to its reputation as a dangerous area, and education campaigns have been slow to take hold.

"They don't understand why the Sister is asking to boil water. Why? I need to use money to boil water," Marcella says.

Across town at an upscale hotel in Port-au-Prince, Gestlet Bordes, with UNICEF, is training people on how best to get educational messages across.

A skit and song explain to people the importance of washing hands and the proper way to treat or boil water.

Haitians are a people who sing and dance, Gestlet says, and people are attracted by this kind of message. Also, we're targeting the least educated among the population, he says.

Meanwhile, Medecins Sans Frontiers Epidemiologist Kate Alberti says cholera treatment centers in the capital are reaching their capacity.

"We're very concerned about Port-au-Prince," Alberti says.

Treating cholera takes a lot of resources: re-hydration salts, special IV fluid, and round-the-clock monitoring of patients.

"We're very concerned about the capacity between the Ministry of Health and major actors to be able to effectively care for these patients," Alberti says.

More partners, she says, would be helpful.

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