Four years ago, a disease was sweeping through two remote communities in Haiti. Healthcare wasn’t accessible and those who were sick quickly worsened. In one year, 291 people died. Does that sound eerily familiar?
Cholera had resurged in Wopisa-Gabriyèl and Kabay in 2016 after flooding from Hurricane Matthew. The bacterial infection thrives in unsanitary conditions, especially water contaminated by human waste.
Treating cholera is usually simple and affordable. But the only route out of the mountainous community is a backbreaking descent on foot that passes over loose rocks and through a waterfall. It’s a challenge for a healthy person to get to a hospital or clinic, never mind someone weakened by the disease.
Then MCC began working with the communities to install water purification equipment, build latrines and offer training on hygiene and handwashing. The following year, there were zero deaths from cholera.
Zero. That’s the power of prevention-based care.
This statistic is in stark contrast to the ever-climbing global count of COVID-19 cases, one of the several differences between the two diseases. And although the symptoms and the transmission mode of cholera and COVID-19 are different, their prevention is remarkably similar.
“COVID-19 prevention will use all the same basic infrastructure and resources that were used to fight cholera,” says Paul Shetler Fast, at the time an MCC representative for Haiti and now MCC’s global health co-ordinator.
“Having clean water, the ability to wash your hands properly, disinfection techniques and safe waste disposal options will all be fundamental to COVID-19 prevention.”
Preventing COVID-19 also requires extra strategies. They include physical distancing, covering coughs, using masks, practicing self-isolation and identifying groups most at risk.
Spreading that information widely is also crucial. “Many fears and false rumours are swirling around Haiti regarding COVID-19 right now,” says Shetler Fast. The local MCC staff and community structures set up during the cholera project can dispel myths with accurate information that could save lives.
Prevention techniques might seem simplistic in comparison to things like ventilators and ICU beds, which receive lots of media attention.
“While those last step services are critical and still possible in wealthy countries, they are out of reach for the majority of people living in the poorest countries,” says Shetler Fast. “If COVID-19 rips through those communities, even accessing basic medical supports will be largely out of reach, let alone ICU beds and ventilators.”
The best way to help? “Do everything we can to make sure the disease is slowed and stopped before it reaches these people,” says Shetler Fast. “The hope of people like those I worked with in Haiti, or in places like it around the world, lies in prevention.”
Top photo: Cilana Louissine washes her hands using a technique she learned during hygiene training from an MCC partner in her community of Wopisa-Gabriyèl, Haiti.