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Monday 9 December 2019

Fresh disaster hits broken Haiti as cholera outbreak claims 140 lives

Relatives of people struck down with the disease wait outside a
hospital for news.
Relatives of people struck down with the disease wait outside a hospital for news.

Shane Hickey

Haiti's government and its aid agencies were battling yesterday to contain a cholera epidemic that has killed at least 140 people in the nation's worst medical emergency since the devastating earthquake last January.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) said the virulent disease, which had affected more than 1,500 people in central Haiti, was the first cholera epidemic in a century in the disaster-prone Caribbean nation, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

The outbreak has postponed a major aid effort by Irish volunteers. Some 300 people were due to arrive in Haiti this morning as part of an intensive building week run by the Haven charity.

However, the outbreak of cholera some 40km away from where they were due to travel to has stalled the project. It is expected the volunteers and staff from the charity will now travel on Tuesday at the earliest.

The outbreak of the infection has occurred in Saint-Marc, which is about 40km south of Gonaives where the "Build It" week was scheduled to happen.

This is the latest in a series of trips to Haiti the charity has organised to build accommodation for locals.

A second group of 300 people are scheduled to travel there next Saturday for a similar week of construction.

Staff at Haven did not initially delay the departure of volunteers yesterday.

However, as fears rose that the outbreak may have spread north, the trip was first postponed for 48 and then for 72 hours.

"People were starting to get concerned that it was spreading out of the city and further north to where we were," a spokesperson said. "There were unconfirmed cases, but very casually speaking, people (management at the charity) are starting to get a little bit nervous."

Volunteers are still expected to return to Ireland next weekend, even though there will be three days of work lost on the site.

"Volunteers will still return on the same day so it is just a matter of getting the head down and getting as much work done during the limited time there," the spokesperson said.

"There is nothing, unfortunately, we can do, we just have to work with the situation we are in. Volunteers will just have to work extra hard.

"A similar thing happened to us last April, our trip got cut short because of the volcanic ash so the flights were changed and we still reached the targets that we had so hopefully this won't be affected any more."

Staff from Haven have been liaising with UN officials in Haiti.

There are currently 24 Haven staff on the ground in Haiti. Of these, 12 are based there permanently.

Another 12 are an advance party of volunteers who travelled on Tuesday of this week to set up the site.

They have all been placed in quarantine on the site.

"We are listening to advice from the medical experts and will be contacting all of our volunteers directly to keep them updated on the situation as it unfolds," financial director Stephen Mitchell said.

Haven was set up in 2008 by businessman Leslie Buckley and his wife Carmel with the aim of improving the life of people living in the country.

The Red Cross and other humanitarian agencies yesterday were rushing doctors, medical supplies and clean water to Saint-Marc in the Artibonite region, the outbreak zone located to the north of Port-au-Prince.

No cases were immediately reported in the crowded capital.

One humanitarian worker who visited the main hospital in Saint-Marc called it a "horror scene."

"The courtyard was lined with patients hooked up to intravenous drips. It had just rained and there were people lying on the ground on soggy sheets, half-soaked with feces," David Darg of the US-based humanitarian organisation Operation Blessing International, told reporters.

The affected region is Haiti's central bread-basket and had received tens of thousands of fleeing survivors from the January 12 quake.

The earthquake killed up to 300,000 people and injured thousands more, traumatising the long-suffering population.

"It is a cholera epidemic," Dr Michel Thieren, an official with the Pan-American Health Organisation, the regional office for WHO, said.

It was not possible to say if the epidemic was at its peak, Dr Thieren said, but it was definitely not over.

Irish Independent

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