Months after it was hit by a devastating earthquake, Haiti is now battling an outbreak of cholera. So far, more than 1,500 cases have been reported and 142 victims have died of the disease, which causes severe diarrhea. The treatment is straightforward – rehydration therapy to reverse potentially deadly dehydration – but relies on hospitals being able to handle surges of weakened patients. It’s been a century since Haiti last faced cholera, and until now everyone had been relieved that the earthquake hadn’t spurred an outbreak.
The Guardian’s Rory Carroll reports that the outbreak is taking place in the largely rural region of Artibonite, and the most badly affected areas are about 60 miles north of Port-au-Prince. Although Artibonite largely escaped the earthquake, it did receive an influx of quake survivors – and without adequate facilities to handle a swelling population, water sources became contaminated with human feces.
Artibonite was already grappling with extreme poverty. I recognized the area’s name because I’d heard a Planet Money podcast in which reporters visited l’Artibonite (“Haiti’s rice country”) to learn why the rice business in Haiti is so bad. The whole show is well worth a listen if you’ve got 19 minutes (the story starts around 1:45), but the show’s website offers this summary:
There are lots of problems with Haiti’s rice market. Since the earthquake, free rice from foreign aid groups has made it harder for Haitian farmers to sell what they grow.
Even before the earthquake, they had a hard time competing with foreign rice, which is produced using high-output, modern farming techniques that aren’t available in Haiti.
As we noted last week, some rice farmers find themselves forced to choose between keeping enough rice for their children to eat, and selling enough rice to pay for their children to go to school.
If people in the area are inadequately nourished because they’re making the difficult choice to sell their rice rather than eating it, that can increase the outbreak’s toll. Malnourished people tend to experience more severe cholera symptoms, which increase their risk of dying from the disease.
Of course, Haiti isn’t the only country struggling with poverty and inadequate sanitation systems. The World Health Organization recently reported that a wave of cholera outbreaks is affecting Central Africa; as of October 3rd, 40,468 cases and 1,879 deaths had been reported in Cameroon, Chad, Niger, and Nigeria.