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Text Messages, Radio Warn Haitians Of Cholera Risks

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Text Messages, Radio Warn Haitians Of Cholera Risks

Global Health

Text Messages, Radio Warn Haitians Of Cholera Risks

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Michele Norris.

The cholera epidemic in Haiti is slowly spreading into new areas, mostly in the north of the country. Haiti faces presidential elections in a month and rumors are flying, including charges that U.N. aid workers brought cholera into the country. That could complicate efforts to rebuild Haiti and battle the current outbreak.

As NPR's Christopher Joyce reports, if there's any good news, it's that cholera doesn't seem to have taken hold in Port-au-Prince, the country's teeming capital.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: The Cahamega camp sprawls alongside a city street. Trucks and cars rocket by on one side, planes land and take off on the other. The camp itself is a maze of tents.

(Soundbite of music)

JOYCE: Each separated by only a few feet. It's as if you're walking through a field of giant mushrooms. A dirt lane serves as Main Street. People who live there set up tables to sell food, whiskey and socks. A woman sits in a chair getting her hair done. Farther along, a truck is pumping water into a huge bladder. It's 20 feet square and 6 feet high. It's the camp's water supply.

(Soundbite of pump)

JOYCE: I'm here with a contingent of radio producers. They work for the International Organization for Migration, which is associated with the United Nations. We file into a tiny, makeshift theater: Tarps thrown over scaffolding, with a dozen benches of rough planks.

Unidentified Children: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Man: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Children: (Speaking foreign language)

JOYCE: A pack of happy kids crowds the benches. All eyes are on Jethro Sereme, a tall, good-looking student at a local university who stands at the front.

(Soundbite of clapping)

JOYCE: The crowd is eager for something different from the humdrum of camp life.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

JOYCE: Sereme grabs a microphone and starts talking about a cholera epidemic.

Mr. JETHRO SEREME: (Speaking foreign language)

JOYCE: The migration organization works with the government's ministry of health to educate people about cholera. Today's appearance is all being recorded and will be broadcast. It's one arm of the frantic campaign to keep the cholera epidemic that started to the north from coming here to these overcrowded camps.

DAPHNE(ph): (speaking foreign language)

JOYCE: A young girl in cornrows named Daphne recites what she's learned: wash your hands often with soap and make sure you drink only pure water.

DAPHNE: (speaking foreign language)

JOYCE: Preventing cholera is fairly simple. The bacteria is carried usually by sewage. Here, though, it's hard keep water and sewage apart.

Mr. SEREME: (Speaking foreign language)

JOYCE: Sereme works the crowd with his microphone. He's clearly enjoying the moment.

So, then you take this and you put it on the radio.

Mr. SEREME: Yeah. Yeah. And tomorrow you can listen. Tomorrow 10 to 11 every day.

JOYCE: What do you call your show?

Mr. SEREME: (Speaking foreign language) the voice of people who are all living in the camps.

JOYCE: And that's what 40 community radio stations will broadcast here tomorrow.

People here get most of their news by radio and for communication it's the cell phone, a very useful device in the city where traffic jams make a trip across town a four hour ordeal. And the cell phone is the second prong in the effort to track and stop cholera.

Working with the country's biggest cell phone carrier, the migration organization is tracking cell phone owners who live in the northern epidemic areas - people who may carry the disease without knowing it.

Leonard Doyle is the organization's communications director, at the U.N.'s logistics center in Port-au-Prince, he pulls up an image on his computer screen.

Mr. LEONARD DOYLE (Communications Director,�International Organization for Migration): Well, here we see a map of Haiti showing movements of people as tracked by their cell phones. When people move around in any country in the world, their cell phones are triangulated between cell phone towers. So that means the cell company can track them.

JOYCE: Tracking them gives health authorities an idea where the epidemic might spread, and where to send medical teams.

Mr. DOYLE: You can not only tell the numbers of people have left, but where they've gone to and when. And then the next step is contacting them. If this was a typhoid outbreak, these are the Typhoid Marys. And were trying to reach out to them in a digital fashion.

JOYCE: These people get a text message to call a number, where they'll hear about cholera prevention. They'll also receive text messages on how to deal with the disease should they become infected. That's the bailiwick of Sabina Carlson, one of the organization's community liaisons. She reads one of the recent text messages.

Ms. SABINA CARLSON (Community Liaison, International Organization for Migration): (Speaking foreign language) So which is: continue to breast feed young children even if they have diarrhea.

JOYCE: Cholera is new here, and many are fearful. A tent clinic for cholera that was under construction in Saint-Marc, to the north, was�met with angry demonstrators�who didn't want it in their community. It was dismantled. The migration organization says that's why education by a radio and cell phone is so desperately needed. Cholera doesn't need to be a killer, they say, if people just know more about it.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News, Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

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