Haiti’s Invisible Killer (Photos)

April 4, 2011 Updated: September 29, 2015

Fifteen months after the catastrophic earthquake flattened Haiti, and after thousands died in the cholera epidemic that peaked around Christmas, a traumatized nation is getting ready to face its next disaster—rainy season and the return of cholera, the invisible killer. Rainy season in Haiti is April-May. 

Cholera had not been seen in Haiti for the last 100 years. It caught people totally unprepared and has frightened them even more than the earthquake did. To make matters worse, experts predict the lethal disease cholera will settle in to become an endemic, long-term problem for the country.

Cholera first appeared in Haiti last October. French epidemiologist Renaud Piarroux, who conducted research on behalf of the French and Haitian governments, determined that United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal were the most likely source of the disease. Another group of scientists hypothesized that the cholera outbreak was triggered by climate changes caused by the ocean atmosphere phenomenon La Niña, combined with a plunge in water and sanitation conditions following the January earthquake.

While the origins of the disease may be ambiguous, its deadly impact is clear. A report by the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population issued on March 24, found that cholera has so far infected 268,444 people and killed 4,758 people in all 10 regions across the country. Artibonite was hit hardest, followed by Grande Anse, and the capital Port-au-Prince where 552 people died. Mortality rates were lowest in Port-au-Prince because of greater education about prevention and better access to treatment centers.

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Since Haitians had had no experience with cholera, at the beginning, they didn't know it could be transmitted only via water and could be avoided by maintaining basic hygiene like washing hands before eating and boiling water used for cooking. Untreated, cholera can kill within a few hours after severe diarrhea and vomiting begins.

“People are really scared, because unlike the earthquake, they cannot see or touch cholera. Haitians thought cholera was similar to AIDS or other sexually transmitted diseases. Many attributed it to evil spirits,” said Giordano Cossu, independent journalist and documentary maker, and co-author with Benoit Cassegrain of a Web documentary on Haiti called “Goudou Goudou, the Ignored Voices of Reconstruction.” Goudou Goudou is Haitians’ name for the earthquake, onomatopoeia for the quake’s deadly sound.

Cossu says the best way to survive cholera is to reach a cholera treatment center, where they infuse you with fluids and salts. He relates a heartbreaking story of a young couple, living in a camp, with two children—a 6-year-old boy and a few-month-old baby.

One day, Mario’s wife showed symptoms of cholera so Mario took her to a hospital. It saved her life, but in his absence, their young son developed symptoms and died within hours.

Cossu explains that in the camps, people are so poor, and their lives are mutually dependent. Those who are sick and make it through are considered dangerous, and will be shunned by neighbors, which is what happened to Mario and his family.

“So this side of cholera creates another social problem—alienation—people don’t know what to do, feeling desperate.”

Maintaining a normal social life in Haiti proves as hard as having normal sanitation. This is because more than 1.5 million people are still living in makeshift camps. The majority of households don’t have toilets and lack access to safe drinking water, which aids the spread of cholera.

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