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Haiti: ICRC helps battle cholera

18-11-2010 Interview

Over 12,000 people have contracted cholera since the current epidemic started, and almost 1,000 of them have died. ICRC Haiti delegation head Riccardo Conti explains the role of the ICRC in the international community's emergency response effort.

Riccardo Conti

What is the situation like, three weeks after the epidemic started?

The illness is continuing to spread, and the situation remains very worrying.

The camps for displaced persons are not the worst affected areas for the time being, as numerous humanitarian organizations are running medical facilities, water systems and refuse collection operations.

It's much more difficult to control the crisis in the poorer areas of the capital, where living conditions are very difficult. A number of cases have already been reported in those areas, including Cité Soleil, one of the poorest parts of Port-au-Prince.  

Prisons are particularly vulnerable. The inmates live in an enclosed environment and many prisons are over-full. Cholera can be carried in via food or visitors. When that happens, the illness spreads very rapidly because of overcrowding.          

Is the cholera epidemic already spreading through Haiti's prisons?

There were 50 cases at Mirebalais Prison right at the start of the epidemic, and five people died. Fortunately, the preventive measures adopted by the ICRC and the authorities limited the spread of the illness in that prison. By contrast, the situation is becoming very worrying in Port-au-Prince National Prison, the largest in the country, which houses 2,000 inmates. Thirty new cases have been reported in the last three days, and seven inmates have died.  

We are continuing to support the prison service as they manage this crisis. As we speak, an ICRC team consisting of delegates specialized in prison visits, plus doctors and engineers, is working in the National Prison. We have made contact at the highest levels so that we can work with the government and provide the Prison Service with everything they need in order to fight the epidemic.

What exactly is the ICRC doing to prevent the spread of cholera in places of detention?

The ICRC has been working to improve conditions of detention in Haiti and we are very worried about the consequences of this epidemic.

One of the first things we did when the crisis started was to set up a mobile clinic, in cooperation with the authorities. The clinic enables Haitian doctors to move from prison to prison, supervising the dispensaries and helping to ensure that the rules of hygiene are being respected.  

For the last three weeks, our teams have been at work in the 11 places of detention that are at risk, helping to put in place such preventive measures as the cleaning and disinfection of cells and toilets, the distribution of hygiene articles and the purification of drinking water. We are also supporting the prison dispensaries by providing them with medicines, materials and advice.

One final but very important point: the spread of cholera depends to a large extent on hygiene habits, so our teams are reminding inmates about the simple but essential things they can do themselves, like washing their hands regularly.      

What is the ICRC doing to fight the epidemic in impoverished areas like Cité Soleil?

Water is one of the routes by which the illness can spread. So in Cité Soleil, for instance, we have made it possible for the water board to increase the level of chlorine in the water. And everyone who collects water from one of the 44 water points that the ICRC has renovated in recent years receives water purification tablets.      

Here and in Martissant, we have provided Haitian Red Cross first-aiders with vehicles to facilitate medical evacuations, plus protection materials and first-aid kits. We are also supporting their hygiene-education work.

How is the ICRC participating in coordination between the various organizations fighting the cholera epidemic?

The ICRC is involved in the emergency response of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, of which the ICRC is a part. Before we launch an operation, we contact the International Federation and all the National Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies operating in Haiti. Efforts and resources have to be distributed in accordance with the competence of each organization. Places of detention are one of the ICRC's specific areas, for instance.

We also try not to duplicate the work of other humanitarian organizations in the country, but rather to ensure that our work complements theirs. In Cité Soleil, for instance, the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital looks after the sick, while the ICRC supports the transportation of patients to the hospital.

The work of the ICRC is just one link in a chain. Many humanitarian organizations are responding to the enormous needs caused by the 12 January earthquake, the hurricanes and now cholera. All of us have limited resources, and it is essential that we work in a complementary fashion, both with other humanitarian organizations and with the State.

 

See also the website of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies


Photos

Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince. 

Cité Soleil, Port-au-Prince.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva / v-p-ht-e-00646

One of the 44 water points that the ICRC has renovated in Cité Soleil. Everyone who collects water from one of these points receives water purifying tablets to add to it. 

One of the 44 water points that the ICRC has renovated in Cité Soleil. Everyone who collects water from one of these points receives water purifying tablets to add to it.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva / ht-e-00647

Port-au-Prince civilian prison, which houses over 2,000 inmates. The prison is overcrowded, a dangerous situation during a cholera epidemic. 

Port-au-Prince civilian prison, which houses around 1 700 inmates. The prison is overcrowded, a dangerous situation during a cholera epidemic.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva / ht-e-00648

An ICRC delegate distributes hygiene articles to inmates of Port-au-Prince's main prison. 

An ICRC delegate distributes hygiene articles to inmates of Port-au-Prince's main prison.
© ICRC / O. Miltcheva / ht-e-00649