The cholera outbreak in Haiti has been ongoing for over five years, and, unfortunately, the disease is still harming and infecting many. Over 8,500 people in Haiti have died from the disease and thousands more have been infected.
Cholera is a bacterial disease most commonly caused by ingesting contaminated food or drinking water. It can cause severe diarrhea and dehydration. The disease has spread rapidly in Haiti since hygiene practices are poor and there is a lack of proper sanitation and latrines in the devastated nation.
In Haiti, the most common, current sanitation system consists of bayakous, a system similar to having an open septic tank underneath the home. One of the biggest problems with bayakous is that many people cannot afford to have one, causing contamination in many otherwise clean areas. After the earthquake in 2010, short-term solutions were put in place in the form of porta-potties. However, this was never meant as a long-term solution, and proper, sustainable sanitation practices have still not been implemented.
Ongoing unsanitary practices have lead to drinking water being contaminated. Very few people have access to clean water or to a purification system that can purify the water. As a result, many Haitians end up drinking contaminated water out of rivers or canals. Until a proper infrastructure for sewage is put in place, cholera will continue to infect many people.
If the lack of proper sanitation infrastructure was not a big enough problem for Haiti already, the lack of healthcare infrastructure is worse. Haiti has a lack of funding, human resources, and medication to help tackle the cholera outbreak. Many patients need treatment when their condition is critical, but the emergency care infrastructure is lacking in preparedness. As a result, many are referred to cholera treatment centers, but these centers often lack enough beds to help all of their patients.
There are many different precautions you can take to protect yourself while traveling in Haiti. Before you leave for Haiti, visit a travel medicine specialist to get a prescription for antibiotics in case of diarrhea, and purchase water purification tablets and oral re-hydration salts.
The World Health Organization has approved two vaccines that protect against cholera, Dukoral and ShanChol. Neither is available within the United States, although Dukoral has been approved for use in Canada. It is important to remember that most travelers are not at a high risk of contracting cholera, as long as proper precautions are taken.
While in Haiti, make sure you drink bottled water or canned/bottled beverages that are sealed when you receive them. Also, make sure you are using clean water when brushing your teeth or when washing and preparing food. Do not use ice, since you do not know whether or not the water it came from was clean. Make sure that you wash your hands often with soap and safe water, and take proper precautions if preparing any food.
The Centers for Disease Control do not currently require any vaccinations to Haiti, but typhoid and hepatitis vaccines are recommended as well as antimalarial medication if traveling to certain regions.
Haiti is a beautiful country that provides a wide variety of opportunities to different types of travelers. A trip to the western half of Hispaniola, taken carefully, can be a rewarding experience that will not be forgotten.
For more information on travel to Haiti, cholera, or any of the vaccinations needed for the island country, see Passport Health’s portals on these subjects.