In October of 2010, less than ten months after being hit by a devastating earthquake, Haiti experienced a cholera epidemic that quickly spread throughout the small nation. The waterborne disease has now killed at least 7,050 Haitians and sickened over 531,000 others. Meanwhile, nearly half a million earthquake victims remain without adequate housing, and Haitians continue to face one of the most challenging clean water and sanitation situations in the world. As the rainy season sets in, the country is experiencing a notable increase in the number of deaths attributed to cholera, according to the UN.
On April 18, 2012, the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CESCR) co-sponsored a U.S. Congressional Briefing that examined U.S. and international efforts to address what has become the world’s worst active cholera epidemic. With U.S. Representative John Conyers, Jr. (D-MI) giving introductory remarks and U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) giving concluding remarks, the panel of speakers was composed of Dr. Luiz Augusto Galvão, Manager of Sustainable Development and Environmental Health Area at the Pan-American Health Organization/World Health Organization; Donna Barry, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Partners In Health; Brian Concannon, Jr., Director of the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti; Mario López-Garelli, Senior Human Rights Specialist at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Inter-American Commission); and Mark Weisbrot, Co-Director of CESCR. The briefing was organized and moderated by J.P. Shuster, research associate at the O’Neill Institute. The group of panelists discussed urgent measures needed to contain the spread of the disease and the longer-term proposals for preventing cholera from becoming endemic to Haiti, as well as the role of international legal mechanisms for protecting health and human rights violations in Haiti’s greater post-earthquake context.
Public Health Perspective
Donna Barry set the context of the discussion by recalling that health and water are basic human rights and that it is the government’s responsibility to provide access to both, which is why Partners In Health’s work in focuses on strengthening government systems. Barry emphasized the importance of recognizing that, prior to the earthquake, Haiti had the worst health indicators and worst access to clean water in the Western Hemisphere and had one of the world’s worst sanitation systems. Barry also highlighted Partners in Health’s recently launched Haiti Cholera Vaccine Project. The project aims to reduce incidence of disease and transmission and starts with the vaccination of 50,000 individuals in a rural community in Saint-Marc. The vaccination project is intended as a complementary measure to prevention and treatment efforts and is part of Partners in Health’s recommended five-point comprehensive response to combat cholera in Haiti: 1) strengthen water and sanitation infrastructure; 2) identify and treat all those with cholera symptoms; 3) role out a safe, affordable, and effective cholera vaccine; 4) strengthen Haiti’s public health system; and 5) improve effectiveness of foreign assistance to Haiti. READ MORE »