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Haiti Cholera Response: Stories from the Field, Part 1

Categories: General, Response, Waterborne

Doctor treating patients at a Cholera Treatment Center in the Artibonite department of Haiti. Photo by Kendra Helmer/USAID

Photo by Kendra Helmer/USAID: Doctor treating patients at a Cholera Treatment Center in the Artibonite department of Haiti.

Cholera has an interesting personality.” That’s what I told my friends when they asked why I was going to Haiti to help with CDC’s cholera outbreak response. Understandably, they were worried I might get sick. Like my friends, most people don’t know much about cholera, so they assume it’s a big, bad bug. And it is. But as I explained to my friends, although cholera is very contagious, you can take some simple steps to prevent it. [View our Photo Gallery]

On the Ground in Haiti

Emily McCormick holding a clinical treatments guidelines brochure.

As a CDC Public Health Prevention Service (PHPS) fellow, I was deployed to Haiti as part of the Cholera Assessments and Training Team from November 10th to December 4th. I was not surprised to arrive in Port-au-Prince and find an army of public health messaging and messengers already on the ground spreading the same messages to Haitians I was told while preparing for the trip.

Cholera is a bacterial infection that causes two usually minor symptoms easy to identify: vomiting and diarrhea. It occasionally causes symptoms severe enough to lead to moderate or severe dehydration—a very serious condition if the patient is not rehydrated immediately. Almost all symptoms can be treated with oral rehydration with a salt and sugar solution.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

Unclean water source in Haiti.

Unclean water source in Haiti.

Cholera is easily controlled in most settings. But Haiti isn’t one of them. Because of the poor water and sanitation problems left behind from the January quake, Haiti provides an ideal circumstance for cholera to spread.

Water systems were damaged in the quake and are no longer able to consistently deliver clean water. To make matters worse, rain has increased water levels in rivers and left standing water. This creates an ideal breeding ground for mosquitoes and other diseases associated with water: dengue fever, malaria and typhoid.

Currently, hundreds of thousands of Haitians are still displaced and living in tents and slums with poor or no sanitation systems. But the tens of thousands of cases and many deaths from cholera in Haiti have certainly gotten the world’s attention. The outbreak provides a great opportunity to remind everyone about the importance of clean water and the severe consequences of going without it.

Perhaps there is a shining light at the end of this epidemic. An increased awareness and investment in clean water can go a long way in public health.

Experience of a Lifetime

Tent city of internally displaced Haitians from the January 2010 quake.

Tent city of internally displaced Haitians from the January 2010 quake.

For me, Haiti was an experience of a lifetime. At first it was unmanageably hard. Working 12 plus hours every day was tough, and at the beginning I was not sure I could do it. It’s a personal and professional gauntlet that requires you to muster up what you’ve learned from every class, every case study, and all of those teachable moments to date.

Somewhere in the process, the fact that the tents are hot and the mosquitoes are incessant drifts into the background. It is so hard but in the best way imaginable because in Haiti there is real impact to really big problems. There is little room for error and even less time to chat. There are just people who need help, right now. For me, it was all about being able to execute.

Back Home, For Now

I’m now back home, exhausted, and my body has taken a licking. But I’m a better person than I was before I went. I met people in Haiti who continue to inspire me and have more gumption than I have ever encountered. It was an amazing experience and I wanted to give others a sense of what it was like by posting this blog. Truthfully, all I want to do is hop on a plane and go back. I look forward to reading your comments or answering any questions.

Learn more about Cholera in Haiti.

CDC responds to cholera outbreaks across the world using its Global Water, Sanitation, & Hygiene (WASH) expertise.

Public Comments

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this blog is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

  1. December 17, 2010 at 6:47 am ET  -   Carmel

    I’m so inspired by your service and feel so blessed to know you!

    Link to this comment

  2. December 17, 2010 at 3:39 pm ET  -   Rachel Rothschild

    Interesting personality in describing a raviging disease that is killing people. Why is CDC there what are controlling the continuance of cholera?

    Link to this comment

  3. December 20, 2010 at 2:42 pm ET  -   greg meyer md md(h) msph

    Great stuff! Good job. I was there in november& heading back in january for a week. I think we get in return more than we give.

    Link to this comment

  4. December 20, 2010 at 6:22 pm ET  -   Deb Courtney, RN

    Thanks for your blog. I work at a travel clinic and we are trying to stay on top of info for our travelers going to Haiti and Dominican. Because Maine and Haiti seem like a world apart, current info from CDC and posts like your blog help me bring real info to travelers so they are not (as) overwhelmed when they get there.
    Thanks.

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  5. December 22, 2010 at 12:26 pm ET  -   Edwige Alcindor

    I Wanted to say thank you to all of you who are working and during researches to help Haiti. May the joy and peace of the Lord above be with you and your love ones during this Holiday season again thank you.

    Link to this comment

  6. December 22, 2010 at 11:18 pm ET  -   kim lyn

    Yet again I’m impressed by the CDC. They are always on top of outbreaks and epidemics. I would like to mention how important it is to wash your hands and wear gloves. Any time you even think that you are dealing with pathogens .Remember that those afflicted with cholera often have diarrhea and vomiting. and there are airborne concerns. And caregivers have to take care of themselves before we can take care of others. I admire the PHPR.

    Thanks for shining a light on the many Haitians that are suffering. They need our donations and our time.
    Karen

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  7. December 26, 2010 at 8:02 pm ET  -   Michael E. Bailey

    Emily:
    This is a great article on a very important issue about how bad infrastructure and natural circumstances can combine to produce citical human health problems like Cholora. As you say, with information and good outreach, things like Cholora are easily and simply controlled. But in a poor country where many people are un (or under) educated, what additional steps have been taken to get information out to all people in ways they can easily understand and act on it? Haiti probably has a disability population that has grown since the earthquake. Is the information on preventing Cholora available in alternative formats for the disabled community there, like Large Print, Braille, audio version, and simple language/picture version?

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  8. January 4, 2011 at 12:37 am ET  -   Dan

    Thanks for sharing your story. Good to see the good work Centers for Disease Control is doing in Haiti.

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  9. January 10, 2011 at 12:41 am ET  -   alex diaz

    I was in Port Prince in july, great experience. I am a public health student in Puerto Rico and will like to make contact with you to share some ideas about programs that can be created to help haiti in this moment.

    Link to this comment

  10. January 13, 2011 at 3:49 am ET  -   Stefanie Bill

    How kind of you that you are traveling just to help those people infected with cholera. there are so many ways how to prevent getting effected by the contagious disease. Let’s have empathy for those people with cholera, don’t treat them as a bad bug. Don’t blame the person, blame the disease.

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  11. January 14, 2011 at 8:37 pm ET  -   Sana

    Thanks Emily for sharing your experience. Its just heart breaking to see that a preventable and curable disease can still claim the lives of many and disrupt the lives of many more. I do sincerely hope the the Haitian government and its people can soon work together to solve the immediate sanitation problems.

    I worked with street kids in Mumbai (India) for a documentary a couple of years back and it was a life changing experience. As I’m sure yours was too. We take too many things for granted. Keep up the good work!

    Cheers,
    Sana K

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  12. January 16, 2011 at 11:34 pm ET  -   Rafael

    Good post…. thanks for sharing

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  13. January 20, 2011 at 7:10 am ET  -   Sam

    Great story. One suggestion – the author notes that cholera is “highly contagious” which is somewhat misleading, as it is not highly contagious between people, which is how the word is typically used.

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  14. January 20, 2011 at 4:39 pm ET  -   uvt8

    Sam, thank you so much for your comments. I apologize if this term was misleading. When I used the term “contagious” I meant communicable by contact with a person or thing (contaminated food or water in the case of cholera). I will be more careful to define this in the future.

    Emily McCormick

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  15. January 25, 2011 at 9:28 am ET  -   uvt8

    Rachel, CDC is collaborating with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Pan American Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and a host of other organizations to assist the Haiti Ministry of Public Health and Population in a concerted effort to control the outbreak.

    You can learn more about the Haiti cholera response here

    Thanks for reading!

    Link to this comment

  16. January 25, 2011 at 9:49 am ET  -   uvt8

    Rachel,

    CDC is collaborating with the U.S. Agency for International Development, the Pan American Health Organization, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and a host of other organizations to assist the Haiti Ministry of Public Health and Population (MSPP) in a concerted effort to control the outbreak.

    You can learn more about CDC’s response to the Haiti cholera outbreak here

    Thanks for reading!

    Link to this comment

  17. February 12, 2011 at 4:21 pm ET  -   Sheran

    Dear Emily:

    Here, in Miami, we have a large community of people from Haiti. There is some belief that the mass graves had something to do with the outbreak of cholera. Is there any truth to that? It sounds more like it was the contamination by fecal material that was the cause?

    Sheran

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  18. February 16, 2011 at 11:03 am ET  -   Blog Administrator

    Thanks Sheran. To respond to your comment, cholera is not transmitted person-to-person as would be the case for a mass grave. Cholera spreads by contaminated water. Specifically, a water such as a well or bucket of drinking water becomes contaminated by fecal matter when someone washes their hands and the water is then consumed by an uninfected person who later becomes ill.

    Though it may seem like cholera is associated with mass graves, it is more likely associated with factors related to mass graves such as funeral proceedings where food and water are consumed and more likely to be contaminated by the cholera bacterium.
    For more information on cholera please visit: http://www.cdc.gov/cholera/index.html

    Link to this comment

  19. July 3, 2011 at 3:12 am ET  -   Kourtney Askren

    some truly fantastic work on behalf of the owner of this website , great subject material .

    Link to this comment

  20. October 2, 2011 at 1:16 pm ET  -   Digestive System Disorders

    Aw, this was a really nice post. In concept I want to put in writing like this moreover – taking time and actual effort to make an excellent article… but what can I say… I procrastinate alot and under no circumstances seem to get one thing done.

    Link to this comment

  21. February 4, 2014 at 9:24 am ET  -   Emmanuel Chidozie

    Hello, Emily.
    You are one of those good people the world needs, and you demonstrated it through your selfless service in Haiti. A land so far away and different from what you call home. I am inspired by you. I am a Doctoral student of public health Epidemiology at Capella On-line University. I am preparing for a project as early as next week that requires me to speak to people like you to get information from a source that was on the ground in Haiti about how live-saving relief efforts were coordinated. My name is Emmanuel and I will greatly appreciate it if you could give me a call on my cell phone at 617-276-4802.
    Thanks and God bless.

    Link to this comment

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