Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cholera Update

The situation in Haiti continues to worsen. News out of Port-au-Prince, the nation's capitol, is that the cholera epidemic has spread into that metropolis, putting nearly 3 million people at risk. Half that many are living in unsanitary tent camps for the homeless, after the earthquake that tore the city down last January.

Cholera has already been blamed for about 550 deaths in less than a month, and tens of thousands have been identified as being infected. The disease is spread through contaminated water, and recent flooding in the wake of Hurricane Tomas is swiftly spreading the bacteria.

One of the strange things about this outbreak is that cholera has never been documented in Haiti before its appearance last month. So where did it come from? One theory is that the disease was introduced to the island by U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal, a country in south Asia where the disease runs rampant. Those U.N. peacekeepers are located at a base on a tributary of the Artibonite River. That river is now contaminated with cholera.

What's are some of the lessons for us?
  • A disease that is entirely unknown to one area can be introduced by people who have traveled to an area of the world where the disease is found. 
  • This kind of problem can happen anywhere (even where you live), brought in by people who have traveled to other countries.
  • In the process of rendering aid to disaster victims, it's possible to increase the scope of the disaster when relief workers bring new problems to the region.
  • After the primary disaster (in this case an earthquake) is long gone, the spread of disease might turn out to be an even more significant catastrophe.
  • Refugee camps can pose risks to large populations who are living in close and unsanitary conditions.
  • It's extremely difficult to manage the human waste problem in a refugee camp setting, which is why it might be preferable to live on your own away from that kind of setting. 
  • If you're on the move, prepare a suitable arrangement for disposing of your own human waste, burying it at least 8 inches deep and 200 feet from any water source, trail or your camp. If you're going to be in the same area for a protracted period of time, dig a pit 4 or 5 feet deep for waste disposal, preferably in a sunny location (to speed decomposition) downwind of your camp and a couple hundred feet from any water . If possible separate urine from solid waste and place them in separate pits, because that will speed composting of the solid waste. Sprinkle a handfull of soil or ashes from your fire over the solid waste to help reduce the smell. 
  • Purify all water used for washing your hands and implements used for cooking or eating, as well as all water used for drinking or food preparation. 

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