A lack of accurate public information about cholera is further complicating efforts to combat the epidemic in Haiti, where the disease has already claimed more than 2,500 lives, according to Save the Children.
In response, the humanitarian organization has launched a wide-reaching public awareness initiative to increase understanding about the cause and spread of the disease.
"It will be extremely challenging to beat back this cholera epidemic without giving people a better understanding of where the real risks lie and the best ways to avoid them. As it is, fear and misperceptions are driving a lot of counterproductive actions," said Charles MacCormack, president and CEO of Save the Children.
Across Haiti, protests -- at times violent ones -- have greeted efforts to establish cholera treatment units. In the absence of information indicating otherwise, many people believe these small, localized treatment centers will increase the spread of cholera in their community. In reality, the closer an infected person is to a treatment center, the better the chances of survival.
Save the Children is working to educate communities about the benefits of cholera treatment units, as well as the strict measures taken at them to prevent further contamination as limiting the spread of the disease is a chief priority for all treatment units. For instance, in order to enter or leave a treatment facility, people must disinfect their hands and their shoes with chlorine-based solutions.
Over the next six months, Save the Children aims to reach 600,000 people through education outreach together with activities and supplies to help prevent cholera. This will help stem the current epidemic, while also helping to prevent future ones. Before the recent outbreak, cholera had not been present in Haiti for decades. The public knew little about the disease and medical professionals knew little about identifying it or treating it.
Save the Children has already begun teaching families, community leaders, and health workers the links between sanitation, waste and the spread of cholera, as well as explaining the effectiveness of hand washing, boiling water and seeking medical support at the first signs of illness. The agency will also ramp up the distribution of hygiene kits that contain soap, aquatabs to treat water and Oral Rehydration Solution to prevent dehydration in patients before they're able to reach treatment units. These are often out of reach for poor families, especially those living in camps for earthquake survivors that already face sanitation challenges.
According to Save the Children, the appearance of cholera underscores the extreme vulnerability of children and families across Haiti who are still trying to cope with the damaging effects of an earthquake that struck nearly one year ago. Less than one quarter of Haitians have access to adequate sanitation, and most do not have access to clean water. In addition, overcrowded slums, other urban areas, and camps where 1.3 million earthquake affected internally displaced people are staying provide ideal conditions for cholera to spread.
"This outbreak clearly shows that without long-term investments in water and sanitation, cholera and other preventable diseases will remain an ongoing problem for the Haitian population," MacCormack said. "While we must act quickly to address cholera, we also must remain focused on fulfilling commitments to build back a better Haiti. We can't afford to take our eyes off one crisis for another."
Save the Children has worked in Haiti for 30 years and has reached over 870,000 people with earthquake relief and recovery since the earthquake struck on January 12, 2010. Of these, 340,000 people have already benefited from Save the Children's clean water, sanitation and hygiene activities that can help prevent cholera infection.
Since the cholera outbreak occurred in mid-October, Save the Children has treated 610 cases of cholera and has reached close to 12,000 households through hygiene-promotion activities.