Sunday, October 24, 2010


(The Toronto Star) - By Jennifer Wells

Saint Marc, Haiti - “Yes, I have confirmed that today,” says Claude Surena, conveying the grimmest possible news. “There are five cases confirmed in Port-au-Prince.”

Over the course of a very long day Saturday Surena, president of the Haitian Medical Association, had repeatedly asked for more time in answering the question everyone wanted answered: has the cholera epidemic breached the Artibonite region, moving south of Saint-Marc and into Haiti’s overcrowded, often fetid and tent-cluttered capital?

By Saturday night there was no other answer.

“Be careful, be careful,” has become a watch phrase. Drink only bottled water. SMS messages are being sent by the Red Cross through cellphone providers Voila and Digicel on how to identify “kolera” (grey diarrhea, vomiting) and how to prevent against its spread (bottled water, hand washing). Do not panic is the main message. Followed by get yourself to a clinic within four hours should you experience the signature symptoms.

The Red Cross has started training volunteers to go into Port-au-Prince’s displacement camps, where, reminds Red Cross communications adviser Sophie Chavanel, the people are most vulnerable. Prevention protocols will be conveyed. Soap disbursement is being considered. The volunteers should be at work in the camps as early as Monday.

At St. Nicolas Hospital, 45 kilometres north of the capital in Saint-Marc, volunteers and medical workers — a documentary team from CBS just landed — step past an incongruous scene of hot dog vendors and sugar cane sellers and men shaving ice into cups for the much-loved fruit-flavoured frescoes, seemingly oblivious to the fact that any water not in a bottle named Evian or similar is being looked upon with horror in Port-au-Prince.

At the threshold of the hospital chunks of foam have been soaked with bleach, and it is into this that one must walk to enter the hospital courtyard.

It takes only seconds to lay eyes again on 14-year-old Magdela Felix. I saw her lying more or less in the same spot on Friday. On Saturday she lies supine on a canvas cot, no longer on the unforgiving brick of the hospital grounds where she first arrived.

Magdela’s father, Marius, had to return to the tending of his fields in the Artibonite in order to feed his family. So Magdela has been left in the care of Meyciu Alcius. Meyciu arrived at the hospital last night with her 6-year-old son, Bien-Aimé.

News of the outbreak travelled quickly and Meyciu moved with haste from her village of Gobèg. What is heartbreaking, in observing the little boy tied to an IV, is that he lies in such a clean, starched pressed shirt and you know that Meyciu was thinking, “We’re going to town. We must dress appropriately.”

Meyciu has never known a cholera outbreak in her lifetime.

“Most Haitians have no familiarity with prevention or treatment,” says the Red Cross’s Chavanel.

The Red Cross has trucked in 31,000 litres of good water to Saint-Marc over 48 hours. They are at the ready. Emergency responders are poised in Canada for more bad news.

Chavanel leads to way to a depot of sorts where the Red Cross has trucked in the water. As she walks she knocks back a soccer ball that has come her way, kicked by a barefoot player on a rocky road. Saint-Marc on its surface seems all but oblivious to the disaster.

By late Saturday afternoon the death toll in Haiti’s cholera epidemic had reached 208. The number of reported cases had surpassed 2,600. The doctor with the CBS crew surveyed the grounds of St. Nicolas and remarked that, given the odds, the march of this is unstoppable.

For now, the medical authorities are offering comforting assurances that the cases in Port-au-Prince were villagers arrived from the Artibonite. There are no source cases in Port-au-Prince — or none yet reported.

In a Saint-Marc news conference Saturday, Dieula Louissaint, the director of health for the Artibonite region, itemized contributions from the international community (UNICEF is helping in the treatment of water), and media dissemination of information (Partners in Health, a longtime co-partner of St. Nicolas Hospital, is supporting financially the radio and television information onslaught to wash fruit and wash hands).

Dispose of trash responsibly was one message. Do not wait too long to see a doctor was another.

The origin of the epidemic has been pinpointed at Grande Saline, the coastal city north of Saint-Marc where the Artibonite River meets the coast. The Artibonite River is contaminated, Louissaint informed the press, perhaps not realizing that this was apparent 24 hours before.

Most Grand Saline residents drink from the Artibonite River. And as they grow sick, they travel south to the capital, where the displaced of Jan. 12, when the earthquake shook Haiti and the world, lie in wait.

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