As the cholera outbreak continues to ravage through Haiti, killing hundreds and inciting terror and riots throughout the country, I’m afraid I may have more bad news. It has come to my attention today that the cholera outbreak is being vastly underreported and underestimated. My sources on the ground in Haiti have estimated that the current epidemic is up to 400% worse than the official numbers reflect. Considering that the official numbers already state a toll of 1,110 dead and another 18,000 sick, the scope of this savage outbreak is shocking.
Furthermore, it seems that nearly all the organizations on the ground were caught by surprise by this sudden outbreak and are grossly undersupplied. Simply put, eradicating the cholera outbreak requires resources beyond Haiti’s capacity. Ringers Lactate fluid (required for intravenous rehydration) remains incredibly scarce within the country. The UN also refuses to provide any cholera treatment supplies to any NGO, instead dedicating all its supplies to the Haitian government. Medications from the Haitian Ministry of Health are also currently not forthcoming. Certain organizations are simply waiting for the disease to strike the capital, Port-au-Prince, before acting. A group I frequently work with, Samaritan’s Purse, is receiving reports of high mortality in remote areas with no assistance reaching them. The U.S. government claims that materials are in place to respond to this developing disaster, but this does not seem to be the case and I worry that false confidence may cost lives.
The spread of cholera now seems past controlling, and using Pan American Health Organization calculations (in the MOST optimistic, with an attack rate of 2% scenario) around 200,000 people will require IV fluid. As around 75% of all cases require hospitalization, each patient uses 8 liters per day for three days, the conservative estimate for IV fluid needed stands at 3.6 million units. Unfortunately, some experts believe that the attack rate will rise above 2% due to lingering sanitation and hygiene conditions caused by the devastating earthquake combined with a Haitian population with no exposure to cholera and immature resistance.
With much of the country living in squalid post-earthquake conditions, we should expect an attack rate of up to 5-8%, according to the Refugee Health Manual. At this rate, we can expect as many as 500,000 to 800,000 cases of cholera. Due to the intense overcrowding, these cases might not be spread out over six months, but rip through the population in six weeks. Roads in Haiti, already devastated by the earthquake and again recently by Hurricane Tomas, continue to keep sick people from seeking and receiving proper aid, meaning that more advanced treatments are needed to halt the disease.
Save the Children, which has been in Haiti for over 30 years and currently operates in 17 large urban camps, is desperately struggling to fight back the disease. They are scrambling to set up new treatment centers around the country as current ones, such as their facility in Port-au-Prince now operates 24 hours a day and still cannot do enough. On the preventive side, Save the Children has distributed 10,000 hygiene kits, 19,000 bars of soap, and chlorinated water to schools and camps. These actions are important and have saved thousands of lives, but in a country of 10 million people, they are simply not enough to hold back the tide.
Similarly my friends at Samaritan’s Purse, who remain a major national player in Haiti, report that even with their huge public awareness WASH program, 400 treatment beds, and over 300 staff dedicated solely to cholera, they were completely unprepared for this outbreak. I find it hard to believe that many organizations were prepared for this and I simply cannot imagine that any hidden capacity exists.
This issue needs immediate global attention. Many organizations on the ground do not have the resources to quickly buy, deliver, and administer necessary cholera medications, like Ringers Lactate. Even if they can afford these costs, it is only the beginning of the current logistical nightmare. The airport in Cap-Haitien has been shut down and there are roadblocks between Cap-Haitien and Port-au-Prince, effectively isolating the entire North of the country. If supplies do make it to Haiti, customs holds these shipments 3 to 10 days and the backlog of supplies, not just at Port-au-Prince but around the country is staggering and costing lives every day. NGO’s are unable to receive and distribute supplies and are resorting to covert and illegal means in some cases to secure these life-saving medicines. Civil unrest around the country, caused by the belief that the UN Peacekeepers are connected to the outbreak, are further hampering the delivery of supplies that eventually do get through the ports.
These hindrances to saving lives must be eliminated. Haiti needs IV fluids sent in massive quantities. Life-saving supplies must be allowed to enter immediately into the country, not sit on pallets for 3 to 10 days out of bureaucratic formality. Organizations on the ground have sophisticated software that allows all the various partners to work together to comprehensively treat the population; we simply do not have enough supplies. The immense backlog of supplies at the ports has strained the entire response grid to the point of collapse and the internal rioting makes it difficult and dangerous to move supplies inside Haiti. The world must help, and must help now.
In addition, the United States needs to seriously and objectively consider a military airlift of supplies into Haiti. While this may appear a drastic measure to some, we cannot sit idle while our neighbor to the south suffers through this nightmare. Our military provided crucial support to those suffering after the Indian Ocean tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, and the earthquake that ravaged Haiti in January, and can do so again in this dire time of need.
Cholera is a disease we can defeat if we work together. Up to 80% of cases can be successfully treated with relatively simple medicines, such as rehydration salts. So join me in telling your friends, writing your congressman, volunteering, or writing a check to one of the many worthy organizations on the ground. We need to spread the alarm, and quickly. This epidemic is larger than previously thought or reported, we are drastically underequipped to deal with it, and it’s moving fast.