Kevin Cavanaugh is a U.S. Fund for UNICEF Senior Program Officer on assignment in Haiti. He spent the last two days in the epicenter of the cholera outbreak.
I am writing from outside of Saint-Marc, Haiti. And today was the most heartbreaking day of my life. Cholera is a nightmare.
So far, more than 290 people have died and nearly 4,150 cases have been reported. But those are only the reported cases. For most Haitians, cholera is something foreign and unfamiliar – it hasn’t appeared on the island in living memory. Many are unaware of the symptoms. Those that can’t recognize cholera often don’t know when medical treatment is necessary.
|U.S. Fund for UNICEF/Cavanaugh/2010|
|Patients spill into the open at L’Estere Medical Center.|
The most affected communities are those that surround the Artibonite River, a region 2 hours north of the capital. The outbreak here comes after recent heavy rains caused the river to overflow its banks and flood the area. Sanitation had already been very poor. Many of the people here rely on the water from the river – for farming, for bathing, for washing clothes, for drinking. For them, there are few other options.
UNICEF trucks are regularly making trips to the area to deliver supplies and monitor the situation. This week, there was an opening for me to drive north towards the river, towards the cholera. I was briefed on the risks and the proper precautions I should take. I packed hand sanitizer and the antibiotics my doctor had prescribed me. I thought I was fully prepared.
The area between Saint-Marc and L’Estere is rural, remote, and vast. The road crosses through rice fields. Irrigation canals slice up the land. The water is muddy, brown, and thick. And people tend the fields. “But this water is probably contaminated!” I shouted. My colleagues nodded.
In L’Estere, we visited a UNICEF-supported clinic. Here, dedicated physicians and humanitarians are combating a nightmare. The clinic is overwhelmed. The cholera patients have spilled over into makeshift tents on the clinic’s grounds. UNICEF is establishing a cholera treatment center here so that health staff can begin isolating cholera cases from the other medical emergencies they treat.
|A young patient is hooked up to an IV for rehydration.|
Nothing hides in Haiti. Everything is out in the open. Cholera is no different. It assaults the infected. It assaults everyone.
It assaulted me, though I was safe. I watched mothers in line with their limp children in their arms. Unmoving children, breathing still, but with glazed eyes. All around, children wailed. Others could only moan weakly. Many were in cots connected to IVs, the attendants bathing them in cold water to grant them some comfort.
Young and old entering the clinic, sweating profusely and barely able to stand. Their legs weak and wobbly.
Five minutes at the clinic and I was in tears.
It was not the first time I cried in Haiti. But it was the most immediate. After 4 weeks here, I foolishly thought I had gained some footing, some understanding of my surroundings, and some ability to cope with life’s uncertainties. I now understand how little I’ve been asked to cope with in my life.