Saturday, October 23, 2010


(Reuter) - By David Darg

We woke to disturbing news on Thursday. Our friends at Partners in Health told us droves of people were arriving at St Marc, sick with diarrhea, and that they were dying from dehydration at an alarming rate. The question was clear, could we mobilize to provide clean water to an area suspected of having Haiti's first major cholera outbreak in decades?

Our staff immediately began loading our trucks with equipment. As we drove the two hours to St Marc emails on my phone showed the death toll was climbing steadily. Everyone was nervous.

We arrived at St Marc hospital to a horror scene. I had to fight my way through the gate as a huge crowd of worried relatives stood outside, while others screamed for access as they carried dying relatives into the compound. The courtyard was lined with patients hooked up to intravenous (IV) drips. It had just rained and there were people lying on the ground on soggy sheets, half-soaked with feces.

Some children were screaming and writhing in agony, others were motionless with their eyes rolled back into their heads as doctors and nursing staff searched desperately for a vein to give them an IV. The hospital was overwhelmed, apparently caught out suddenly by one of the fastest killers there is.

Our friend, Cate Oswald, from Partners In Health came out from a triage tent clutching a hand-drawn map. It showed the local river and the names of a few communities where the patients had been coming from. Cate and some of her colleagues led us into the countryside to find the source of the epidemic.

Soon we were heading down narrow dirt roads with rice paddies and canals on either side. The crisis had started the day before. Doctors realized it was getting serious during the night. By then the villagers had heard of the deaths and word spread quickly not to drink water from the river.

Most people had gone thirsty for hours. The roads were lined with villagers holding buckets, begging for water. Some larger groups had set up road blocks and our convoy was forced to stop and explain that we didn't have water, only equipment to purify water, and that we were heading to the source of the problem. The villagers reluctantly let us pass.

People were constantly trying to flag us down and pointing to sick friends and relatives. One group forced us to stop - they had a girl close to death. PIH staff started her on an IV and placed her in their vehicle. Her mother, clutching another baby, explained that her husband had died yesterday and asked us to save her daughter.

We arrived at the place where many of the patients had originated from, a small dusty community called Babou La Port. Our team set up a water purification system, which filters and chlorinates, ensuring that any bacteria or diseases are killed.

As we worked, sick villagers of all ages congregated under the shade of some large trees. The medical staff placed IVs in some. One, a boy named Frantz, was brought to us by his grandmother. He was weak and vomiting. His grandmother was frail and could only point to the river when we asked her how long Frantz had been ill.

Diarrhea is unfortunately a common problem in this part of the world. A villager with cholera might lie down on feeling ill, expecting to get better, and be dead within hours.

Convoys of trucks plastered with the posters of various presidential candidates drove up and down the dirt roads. Many candidates saw this as an opportunity to campaign. They were tossing out small plastic bags of water to the desperate crowds. There were fights for the water and one man was crushed under a truck in the scuffle.

Our filtration unit fired up and word spread quickly. Soon a sea of multi-colored buckets surrounded us. There were no cheers and little laughter; most of the villagers were stunned, afraid and weak. They were just relieved to have water.

Some of our Haitian staff agreed to stay with the system overnight and keep it operating. It was a daunting challenge, to stay awake surrounded by deadly disease and desperate villagers.

Back at St Marc hospital not much had changed, other than the death toll. As I write, the confirmed toll is 135 and rising with thousands more infected. There are still patients being carried into the hospital close to death.

Now however the cries of the mothers are louder and there are even more people at the gates desperate to hear news of their loved ones. The hospital is struggling to cope with such a sudden influx of patients, especially since it is still trying to recover from the January earthquake.

The scenes at St Marc reminded me of Haiti's capital Port-au-Prince after the quake: patients lying in the streets, doctors struggling to cope, mass hysteria and fatigue.

On Thursday morning, as the scale of the problem began to emerge, my friend Dr Koji from Partners in Health shook my hand and said "Let's stop this". The only way to halt a disease like cholera is to stop people from getting infected. The hardest hit areas now have access to safe water, and thanks to people like Dr Koji the sick are receiving treatment.

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