Angela Mulholland, CTV.ca News
Date: Saturday Oct. 30, 2010 7:49 AM ET
As Haiti enters its third week of an outbreak of cholera, health workers on the ground say they are fighting against a tide of misinformation in their fight to educate Haitians on how to combat the illness.
Just this past week, as the aid group Doctors Without Borders (MSF) was finishing construction of a 400-bed cholera treatment centre in the seaside town of St. Marc, a group of local residents demonstrated violently against the facility and several tents were burned.
The facility was being built to offload some of the burden on a nearby hospital that had become overwhelmed with cholera patients.
But the facility was being built on a soccer field near a school and it appears that many of the 300 protesters feared the clinic would actually bring more disease to their town and infect the children.
“They didn’t understood well what was the purpose of this camp and how are we going to treat the patients there,” Francoise Otero, an MSF representative in Haiti later told reporters.
Julie Schindall, an international media officer with the aid group Oxfam who has been working in Haiti since March, says she’s not sure precisely what happened with that incident. But she says keeping the locals informed of the how’s and why’s of a relief organization is always paramount.
“Whenever you begin a program, you have to make sure that the community is informed about your work and that there is not only one-way communications; there’s two-way communication,” she told CTV.ca by phone from Port-au-Prince.
“If you don’t have the community understanding and accepting your work, you will have problems.”
Schindall, who just returned from Artibonite, the province where the current cholera outbreak is concentrated, says there is a great deal of misunderstanding about cholera, which has so far killed more than 300 Haitians.
She notes that Haiti hasn’t seen a cholera outbreak in decades, so many residents had never heard of the illness until two weeks ago.
“I would say that the knowledge of cholera is basically nil in Haiti because they haven’t had it much in the past. So part of our task is just to explain it,” she says.
Cholera, which is spread mostly by water contaminated with bacteria-carrying feces, can be easily prevented with proper handwashing, water purification, and proper sanitation.
Schindall says the key task to combating this latest epidemic is to inform people of the basics of this illness.
“One of the challenges when you’re doing public campaigns is that misinformation can spread so rapidly,” she says.
“Right now, we’re seeing people in Artibonite and in Port-au-Prince wearing face masks. Well, face masks will do nothing to stop cholera,” she says.
Schindall says there’s a strong need to get the word out calmly and consistently, while also battling the rumours that work against the public outreach campaigns.
“Most people here are very poorly educated about the basic hygiene practices that are important. But the prevention against cholera is the same as for any water-borne, diarrheal disease,” she says.
“But also we have a population that isn’t accustomed to cholera. So just hearing the word scares them.”
Among younger, urban Haitians, the communication method that health workers is taking advantage of is SMS messaging on cellphones. “Everyone here has a mobile phone,” Schindall says. Local cell networks are sending out free text messages in Creole, giving users tips about how to avoid infection and telling them how to spot symptoms.
In rural provinces, there are larger public communication challenges, since many have access only to a hand-crank radio. Others get their information through “tap-tap” cabs, which are the communal taxis in Haiti that often carry radios.
In the most remote locations, an information campaign can mean going from village to village to spread the word.
“We have to get to every single individual there with the information they need to stop the spread,” Schindall says.
“So much can come down to word of mouth. But what we still deal with is misinformation through word-of-mouth. So we have to ensure that everyone has the right information.”
At last count, more than 5,000 people had been infected with cholera in Haiti. But because the illness often causes no symptoms in infected patients, the real infection rate might be much higher.
That raises worries that the illness will continue to spread, eventually hitting the squalid tent cities in the capital of Port-au-Prince.
The most important point in this article is a simple one.
Anyone trying to do anything in Haiti – or anywhere else – must make the community aware of exactly what they are doing and why they are doing it. Had the hospital people explained things to the Haitian community, the local population would have assisted with the construction.
All too often the foreigners know what is best (and this may be true) but act without consulting anyone.
Problems are a predictable outcome.
Problems derail useful projects.
In this case, a badly needed hospital facility was stopped and the population will pay a price.
People may die.
In Haiti a little PR cures almost any problem.
People like to be consulted.