The rain was pouring as the car rolled towards Hinche. Kal and I were leading a team of doctors and researchers on a week-long investigation of factors related to the cholera epidemic in Haiti’s Center department a few weeks ago. As we went along the road, we could only look as far as five meters ahead due to heavy rainfall. I vaguely recalled hearing of a Hurricane Matthew forming in the Atlantic Ocean a few days before. The rain beating down on the area known as the “Bas Plateau” (Southern region of the Center) gave me a glimpse of the massive environmental and health consequences such a hurricane would bring to Haiti. My anxiety increased knowing that this specific department was the first, and one of the most severely, affected by the cholera epidemic ever since it was introduced in Haiti in 2010 due to improper waste management by UN peacekeepers.
Hurricane Matthew mostly devastated Haiti’s Deep South, affecting nearly 80% of homes in Jeremie, a coastal town in Grand Anse. Crops, livestock and drinking water systems also perished. As foreseen by health authorities and the population, outbreaks of cholera, which is endemic in Haiti seem to have quickly risen in several localities of the South peninsula. In light of my experience on the field in the Center, I propose a few strategic insights pertaining to cholera elimination in the aftermath of this disaster.
Decision making and public health interventions are more likely to be successful when they include members of the community served.
That is to say, the people from there who hold an attachment to that particular region, who maintain hope in the face of adversity and challenges as in post-Matthew Haiti. In my opinion, the water and sanitation technicians of the municipalities known as TEPACCs embody this idea. They are residents of the respective communities they serve. Oftentimes university students or local professionals, they are responsible for listing water sources and oversee the management of sanitation structures in the most remote areas of the country. The TEPACCs are widely responsible for the safety of the water consumed by most of the population and ensuring that waste is properly disposed.
These workers are familiar with all the localities and their physical and structural characteristics. During our time in Mirebalais, the TEPACCs Grandin and Cameau, guided us to the remote areas, and informed us on the unspoken truths of these places where cholera has remained for 6 years. The cholera efforts and results all around the country would be far more effective if they were provided the necessary equipment they often lack such as, motorcycles so they can access remote areas easier, computers and cellphones to facilitate communication. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew because so many water sanitation structures have been destroyed, offering more resources to the TEPACCs is crucial.
The epidemic situation in the Center also reveals the vulnerability of specific regions where cholera persists in Haiti. Floods may have worsened the contamination of water sources in the South, as shown by more than four hundred suspected cholera cases, unconfirmed as of this writing. However, the focus should not be taken off previously identified zones of cholera persistence such as specific towns or regions in the North, Center, Artibonite and West even when they were not the strongly affected by Hurricane Matthew. Studies show that these zones of persistence play an important role in re-emergence of cholera during the rainy season because the transmission lingers even during the dry season. The increased cases during the rainy season such as the situation in Randel (South) right now- where an outbreak erupted even before the hurricane- is nothing but a mere consequence of cholera enduring in Haiti for 6 years. So, in addition to the added risk that Hurricane Matthew brought, these preexisting persistence zones remain the pressure points on which our attention should remain if we hope to eliminate Cholera on the island.
The reconstruction of water systems and protection of sources should indeed take into account these towns whose vulnerability have not decreased after Matthew. In Mirebalais, I visited a Cholera Treatment Centre (CTC) where there were more than a hundred cases in the last three days at the time of my visit. An officer of an international organization working with outbreak response teams on the field reminded me that the epidemic had been raging long before the hurricane. It is imperative that we do not forget that.
In such a context, I do not share the opinions of some of my colleagues who dismiss the importance of vaccination, thinking it would be a waste of time, money and energy. As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization pledged one million vaccine doses to Haiti that 500,000 people could benefit from. Vaccinations may not the cure to the epidemic, but they can help save precious time and resources while we focus on strengthening our response capacity to outbreaks, improving access to safe water and sanitation, and educating at-risk populations especially in a post-disaster context. Education is crucial for behavior change, because many still believe that “cholera is spread through the air.” One man told us these words right before he nonchalantly dove in the Artibonite River that visibly contains dirt and sewage from the marketplace, the slaughterhouse and the prison.
The effects of Hurricane Matthew will be long term. The challenges of eliminating cholera by 2022 are uncountable. Based on my experience in research on the determinants of the cholera epidemic in the Center department alone, I foresee the benefits of strengthening the TEPACCs in their role, keeping epidemiologic surveillance in known areas of cholera persistence in Haiti and seizing this opportunity to vaccinate at-risk populations to prevent new cholera infections. This will be a heavy task, but this is a time where we, as a people, cannot afford to sink into fatalism or complacency. Hurricane Matthew is surely a step back, but it is also an opportunity to push Haiti forward towards progress and sustainability.