October 13th, 2011
03:25 PM ET

Lesson from Haiti's deadly cholera outbreak

Cholera cases have risen in Haiti, but the number dying from the disease is down, according to researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The number of deaths were initially way too high,” said Dr. Robert Tauxe, researcher and deputy director at the CDC. “But within a few weeks of the outbreak, we trained teams to treat the disease and increased access to supplies.”

Tauxe says these improvements lowered the mortality rate from cholera in Haiti from 4% to below 1%, where it's been since December.

Cholera is contracted by consuming food or water contaminated with fecal bacteria. People who live in rural areas with a lack of adequate water treatment and sanitation are more likely to get the disease. While it can cause severe dehydration from rapid loss of body fluids, cholera is one of the easiest diseases to treat with oral rehydration salts.

Access to these very basic supplies was a core challenge in Haiti that led to many deaths soon after the outbreak.

In a new CDC report, researchers lay out the lessons learned since cholera emerged in Haiti and what needs to be done to sustain the progress that has been made to treat the disease and prevent deaths.

The most beneficial lessons may seem quite simple: Improve sanitation system, train more health workers to handle treatment, and educate citizens on the risks and how to chlorinate their own water.

However, in Haiti, what appears simple is not quite as easy.

Only half of Haitians have access to health care because of poverty and shortage of health care workers. There is one doctor and one nurse for roughly every 10,000 people in Haiti.

“Through our PEPFAR program [U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] and NGO partners we have trained hundreds of health workers all around Haiti which has resulted in locals have quick access to cholera treatment centers now matter where they live,” said Dr. Jordan W. Tappero, director for the CDC’s Health Systems Reconstruction Office in Haiti.

Improvements to the national sanitation system continue this year and efforts are under way to begin manufacturing in Haiti, which should improve access to water chlorination tablets.

CDC officials say they’re confident that when people learn how to treat cholera, deaths from other diarrheal diseases will go down as well.

“It is a ripple effect,” Tauxe said. “When health officials and residents get a handle on the importance of clean water and sanitation we will see that it helps prevent other diseases.”

More than 400,000 have been sickened from cholera since the disease emerged in Haiti in October of last year. The outbreak has claimed more than 6,000 lives.

soundoff (One Response)
  1. thomas klein

    There are systems out there that are inexpensive, compact, and easy to install. The one that comes to mind is the McGuire water purification system. See http://waterfortheworld.com/systems-and-resources/ . The test for chloroform bacteria is simple and straight forward, Locations that do not warrant a McGuire system could use a Sawyer filter system. These two systems along with Hygiene training could eliminate 99% of water borne illness in Haiti and around the world. This worldwide problem kills more people than all wars, floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes combined. You don't need to be a nurse or doctor to prevent the majority of the worlds deadly illnesses.

    October 14, 2011 at 11:11 | Report abuse | Reply

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