By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA (AlertNet) – Just over a year after the cholera epidemic hit Haiti, hundreds of Haitians are dying of cholera every month, as the government and aid agencies struggle to provide clean water and sanitation amid donor fatigue, charity Partners in Health said.
Cholera, a waterborne disease, has killed over 6,700 Haitians and infected nearly 500,000 – roughly 5 percent of the Caribbean nation’s population – since the epidemic broke out in October last year.
“That’s a staggering number for a disease that is preventable and treatable,” Jonathan Lascher, the medical charity’s senior programme manager in Haiti told AlertNet in a phone interview from the capital Port-au-Prince.
“Cholera is still here, and it’s still very much a part of Haitian peoples’ lives every day,” he added.
Last month, 202 Haitians died from cholera and nearly 22,000 new cases were reported, according to government figures.
More people died of cholera last year in Haiti than in any other part of the world, and the disease is likely to become the leading killer of children under five in Haiti, estimates Partners in Health, a Boston-based non-governmental organisation (NGO).
Before last October, cholera had never been recorded in Haiti. But as the bacterium continues to contaminate rivers, canals and food markets across the country, cholera is not going away.
While mortality rates have been declining since the start of the outbreak, heavy rains in September and October have triggered fresh spikes in the number of cases.
“We’ve seen different spikes since this epidemic started. We are prepared for a major spike at any time. We know that cholera will be in Haiti for a very long time to come,” Lascher said.
Limited access to clean water and poor sanitation means that cholera in Haiti will continue, health experts say.
More than 3.7 million people in Haiti do not have access to clean drinking water, while only 17 percent of the urban and 10 percent of rural populations have access to sanitation, according to United Nations figures.
The situation has been made worse by growing numbers of aid agencies pulling out or scaling back cholera prevention and treatment programmes because of a lack of funding.
“There are still 550,000 displaced people living in 802 camps where sanitation and hygiene conditions are deteriorating due (to) the withdrawal (of) humanitarian actors. The lack of drainage services, repair and maintenance of latrines provides a conducive environment for the spread of cholera,” the U.N.’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said in its latest update.
The number of NGOs working in Haiti to tackle cholera has more than halved during the last year.
“We’ve seen a decrease in the number of NGOs focused on cholera programmes and prevention from 128 NGOs working in Haiti in 2010 when the epidemic broke to 40 NGOs on the ground today,” Lascher said.
“Many NGOs realise cholera is still a problem but there is donor fatigue for cholera and unfortunately funding for cholera is not as prevalent as it was last year,” he added.
So far, medical aid agencies have largely focused on curbing cholera by raising awareness about how to prevent it, including washing hands regularly and treating water with chlorine tablets, through public health campaigns on the local radio and community training.
“The message is getting out to Haitians to wash hands and to treat water but without access to latrines and clean water they are at risk of getting cholera even if they have the education about how to prevent the disease,” Lascher said.
Cholera needs to be tackled in a variety of ways, including vaccination and prevention measures, says Partners in Health.
In January, the health organisation will lead a pilot vaccination programme targeting 100,000 Haitians living in rural and urban areas.
The oral cholera vaccine is given in two separate doses, costing $1.85 a dose, is 70 percent effective and offers protection for at least 36 months.
(Editing by Rebekah Curtis)