Cholera Outbreak Advances Toward Haiti's Refugees

In Haiti, an outbreak of cholera has begun to claim more victims. There are now some 200 confirmed dead and more than 2,000 sick. The disease has also begun to edge closer to the crowded refugee camps in the capital, Port au Prince. Liane Hansen talks with Melody Munz, environmental health coordinator for the International Rescue Committee in Haiti, about the deadly outbreak.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

In Haiti, an outbreak of cholera has begun to claim more victims. There are now some 200 confirmed dead and more than 2,700 sick. The disease has also begun to edge closer to the crowded refugee camps in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

Melody Munz is environmental health program coordinator with the International Rescue Committee. We've reached her in Port-au-Prince.

Thank you for joining us.

Ms. MELODY MUNZ (Coordinator, Environmental Health Program, International Rescue Committee): Good morning.

HANSEN: The outbreak began in the rural area to the north of Port-au-Prince, but it now appears to be spreading. If it reaches the refugee camps in the capital, what do fear could happen?

Ms. MUNZ: Well, our greatest fear is that it will spread very, very rapidly through the camps. It could be very difficult to contain. And the main reason for that is that the camps are generally very, very crowded, and we're also sitting in the middle of the rainy season and the hurricane season. So a lot of the camps are prone to flooding, which is a very good transmission route for any diseases, particularly diarrheal diseases.

HANSEN: What are the main things the IRC is doing to fight the spread?

Ms. MUNZ: The principal thing is we're part of a coordinated humanitarian response here, to have a systematic treatment of all water sources in all regions, both at the source. So in a lot of cases, we're trucking water. Also, there is well water. So we're treating at the source and, as well, we're also providing treatment chemicals for people to treat at the household level. That's the first thing.

Then we're also doing a mass distribution of soap, and we're stepping up our hygiene promotion activities, making sure that they're drinking the safest possible water they can, and especially washing their hands. Hand-washing is number one.

HANSEN: Are there enough supplies?

Ms. MUNZ: For the moment, there are sufficient supplies, if it doesn't spread too quickly. Most of the humanitarian organizations have pre-positioned materials that we begin our response with. But we will need to mobilize additional water treatment supplies, medical supplies for rehydration, antibiotics for treatment, and we have to make sure that the water supply is going to be adequate and adequately treated.

HANSEN: How difficult is it to get the supplies to the people who need it quickly enough?

Ms. MUNZ: Well, because of the earthquake in January, a lot of systems were set in motion to provide water and sanitation to all of the camps. It's really just a matter of maintaining those programs that are already in place and making sure that the water supplies are adequately chlorinated, and the clean materials and soaps are continuously distributed to the camps.

HANSEN: For the people who have already contracted cholera, you mentioned antibiotics. Is that the way you treat it?

Ms. MUNZ: Well, yes and no. The first step is as soon as somebody realizes that they have any symptoms of diarrhea at all, the first thing to do is begin a rehydration. When cholera strikes, it actually sucks all of the - as much as possible - the liquids from the body, and people lose all their electrolytes, potassiums and salts. So we need to replace that as quickly as possible so that organs of the body don't shut down. Cholera is eminently treatable if people rehydrate immediately and seek care.

HANSEN: Do you think this is going to be protracted, or this could be over quickly?

Ms. MUNZ: It's very difficult to say. What I can say is the International Rescue Committee and all of the other humanitarian organizations that are working in this area, we are well prepared. Cholera treatment centers are going up as we speak. And the preparations to respond to it, if and when it does hit Port-au-Prince, are all mobilized now.

HANSEN: Melody Munz is with the International Rescue Committee. We reached her in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Thank you. Good luck.

Ms. MUNZ: Thank you very much.

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