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Archive for October, 2010

Looking-over-the-Dead

Haiti could literally not be more unlucky.  Just 10 months after a devastating earthquake killed over 200,000 people, left 1.3 million homeless, and practically destroyed any semblance of government, a cholera epidemic has swept through the central plateau region of the country killing over 300 people, and leaving thousands of sick in its wake.  Last week the U.S. embassy sent out an email saying to avoid the region because about a hundred people had gotten diarrhea, which seemed like a pretty weird reason not to go somewhere to me.  But sure enough, the next day it was confirmed that the diarrhea had been caused by cholera, a disease that hasn’t been seen in Haiti for over a century.

Carrying-the-Dead

I covered the story for NBC over the past few days, and went with my friend Ben to the Hospital Albert Schweizer in Deschapelles, a small town just 30 minutes from the epicenter of the outbreak.  The managing director of the hospital told us that they were seeing a constant stream of cholera patients, and that they were now forced to operate two hospitals in one: one for the cholera patients, and the other for everyone else.  Cholera patients were spilling out into the hallways, as there were not enough beds for the sick.  Mothers held their children’s IV bags while sitting on the floor, the elderly were simply too weak to move.

The issue is the water.  Somehow the disease got into the muddy water of the Artibonite River, which is Haiti’s largest, and infected thousands of people.  The problem is that many poor Haitians who live in the countryside are, at times, forced to drink this water because they have no other options.  There are no grocery stores there, and shops to buy clean water are few and far between.  Many of the hospitals have noticed that the majority of their patients are workers from the nearby rice paddies, which are irrigated by the Artibonite.  The workers get thirsty, they drink the water, and 3 days later they are deathly ill.

Artibonite-River

I visited the Artibonite on Monday with an NBC team that had come down, and as we walked into the market that sat besides a bridge that crosses the river, it became abundantly clear why this epidemic is not going away anytime soon.  Sitting on the outskirts of the market were three women selling the catch of the day, which just happened to be fish fresh from the river.  I tried to explain to them in my terrible Kreyol that the fish were no good, and that you can get sick from eating them, but they argued back:  “The fish are fine,” as swarms of flies flew over their catch, “the water here is not bad.”  In reality you can’t blame them, this is their livelihood, but the water there is very bad, and those fish could soon be someone’s last meal.

Fish-for-Sale

The UN, and other organizations, has stressed the need for education and messaging to make sure that the population here knows the facts about this disease, but it just doesn’t appear to be working.  Almost everyone in the city of Saint Mark, which holds the hospital that has seen the most cholera cases, wears a face mask, yet cholera is not an airborne disease.  Those who don’t have masks cover their mouths with their hands, which is exactly what you are not supposed to do.  You get the germs on your hands, you put your hands in your mouth, and then you get sick.

The UN has also begun a program to build “Cholera Treatment Centers”, which they were originally calling “Isolation Clinics” before they realized how inhumane that sounded.  The people in Saint Mark burned the first CTC down because Doctors Without Borders decided to build it on a soccer field next to a school.  While the school children would have most likely been safe from the disease, it appears there is a disconnect between the community and the humanitarian aid organizations that could eventually cost people their lives.

But the ignorance isn’t only in the countryside.  After returning to PAP, I had conversation after conversation with Haitians who just didn’t know anything about cholera.  Whether it’s a certain kind of vegetable that they heard carries the disease, or a lack of knowledge regarding the issue in general, the people here are going by the most recent rumor they hear on how to get (or not get) the disease.  While driving to Saint Mark on Sunday, one of our drivers said, “I would rather have AIDS than get cholera!”  Everyone in the car gasped, looked at him, and simultaneously asked, “Why?!”  He downshifted to avoid a pothole, and then explained, “At least if I have AIDS I will have 15 or so years to live.  When you get cholera you die in four hours!”

Cholera-Victim-with-Mother

While our driver was right about cholera killing people in a matter of hours, 95% of the people who make it to the hospital are able to get treatment and be discharged a few days later.  The hospitals have the supplies, they just need you to get on to one of their beds so that they can treat you.  The problem is that so many people live so far away from a hospital that many just don’t make it there in time, or if they do it’s already too late.  Not to mention, Haitians are already chronically dehydrated and malnourished, so it doesn’t take much to finish the job that everyday life here in Haiti has already started.

Children's-Cholera-Ward-2

The numbers have continued to rise steadily, and aid organizations here are planning for the worst case scenario.  One of their worst fears has already come true in that 5 cases have been confirmed here in PAP, but they all traveled from the central plateau region, and had been infected there.  What NGOs in the capital are fearing most is it spreading in a tent camp or slum where tens of thousands of people could get sick in a matter of days.  There are dozens of unconfirmed cases in PAP, but many fear the number released by the government is much lower than the reality, and that this could spread amongst the displaced people in the camps like wildfire.

For Jillian and I, we are just being extra cautious, washing our hands, drinking water we know is clean, and not eating street food.  There’s only so much you can do, but as long as we are vigilant we feel that we will be OK.  Many here have stopped shaking hands, instead using an elbow bump as a greeting in an effort to reduce germ proliferation.  Also, for a few days we couldn’t find water anywhere in the city, as cars would drive from store to store with trunks filled with empty Culligan water jugs ready to be refilled.  That’s toned down a little bit, but all it takes is one radio host to say there’s going to be a clean water shortage and all of a sudden water will be sold out everywhere.  But in reality, Jillian and I also have the added benefit of being healthy individuals who eat well and drink plenty of water.  While cholera would not be pleasant, we wouldn’t have the same four hour time-line that many of the population here has.

Cholera-Victim

Only time will tell whether this becomes a nationwide disaster or just a major public health issue.  No matter what, people know they are at risk, and it’s a situation that has left the country stunned.  The UN is expecting the numbers to continue to rise, but with education and an increased focus on hygiene (which is horrible here), they are hoping to slow down a deadly epidemic that could possibly last for years.  Because Haiti needed another hurdle to stumble over, right?

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Olie-on-the-Table

While it’s obviously clear by the picture above that Olie has been taking the past few weeks to sleep away the days, Jillian and I have been incredibly busy with work, and friends, and work, and work.  We have a lot to catch up on, so bear with me and I’ll show you what we, and Haiti, have been up to.

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Bug Eyes

BUG-EYES

I was taking pictures recently when this bug my gorgeous wife Jillian flew into my lens stepped in front of the camera wearing my sunglasses.  It’s a rare day when Jillian decides to smile for the camera when I take pictures of her (you can see proof here), so I decided to include this gem on the blog.  Enjoy!

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Crumbling-House

…it’s also the percentage of rubble that’s been cleared out of Port-au-Prince after the earthquake!  Now, I don’t need to remind you why this is a problem (if the rubble is still there, there are no new houses [temporary or otherwise]; and if there are no new houses, the tent cities will be here forever), but I just did anyways.

I was talking to a member of the NGO community earlier this week about why rubble removal was taking so long, and he explained that for many NGOs who are building transitional shelters, rubble removal just isn’t a priority. “We’ve really started to figure out that building transitional shelters and removing rubble is very interconnected,” he said, as if this was a revelation that could possibly impress a cynic.  I wanted to bonk him on the head and say, “No s#@t!”  Coming to that conclusion now is like realizing that you had to clear trees to build a road over the Appalachian mountains…9 months after you started.

Crumbling-House

And while a lot of rubble has been cleared away, the city is still sprawling with collapsed buildings that don’t appear to be going anywhere.  According to an AP wire, some estimate that there is 33 million cubic yards of rubble just waiting for someone to throw it into the side of the road and cause a traffic jam.  That’s enough concrete to build seven (7!) Hoover Dams.

Now the reason why this is taking so long is obviously complicated, but if everyone was putting as much focus on moving this rubble as they are on, well, everything else, maybe we would start to see some progress.  In many situations the rubble is hard to get to, and can only be cleared by hand, bucket by bucket.  That takes forever, especially at the pace that $5 a day earns you.  But even in places where there is room to bring in the heavy machinery, it’s just super dangerous.  The buildings in the two pictures above will not be easy to take down, and because the machinery is hard to come by building owners usually hire local workers to just smash them down with sledgehammers.  After a month or two that works, but at that pace we’ll be here for decades.

Anyways…I could go on about this for hours, but I won’t bore you.  If you’re interested in reading more about the complexities of rubble removal in Haiti, you can click on these words, and it will take you to an AP article about it.

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We always knew there were some crazies out there reading our blog, but this has gone too far…

I was recently perusing the statistics pages of our blog, which allow us to see a plethora of information regarding our readers, and found something that I thought I would share with you.  The information includes how many people are reading the blog every day, if they are being referred from other websites (and what websites are referring people to us), and also what search terms people are using to find our blog.  I don’t typically check the last one, as I’m not really sure where those search terms actually come from, but I thought the selection of search terms used last Thursday to find our blog particularly intriguing:

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see where I’m going with this.  The “Giant Store Haiti” one makes sense, as I had just wrote that post about the behemoth of a food store opening close to us.  “Sandwich cookie +orange” makes sense too (here), as well as “Petionville Golf Club” (here and here), and “Support Manager Goats” (kinda…here).  But if you look closely, someone actually found our blog by searching for “Where to sell goat meat”…

I’m fascinated, and a little disgusted, that those five words put together in a search engine result in you getting here.  I was curious why this could possibly be the case so I tried it myself.  Apparently if you search for “Where to sell goat meat” in google, our blog does not pop up as one of your first options, BUT, if you misspell the words like our prospective goat-meat-seller did (“wheree tyo sell goat meat”) our blog does, in fact, come up as the third choice! (just under the Wikipedia page for “Doner Kebabs”, of course)

I suppose it could be worse.  We could be looking at search terms like “ugly blancs in Haiti” or “gun toting sisters of the traveling leather pants”, but instead we are stuck with people trying to sell mutton over the internet.  I can only hope that this particular reader found what he was looking for while perusing the pages of “On the Goat Path”, and that we can, through some good writing and stellar pictures, finally reach our long-time goal of surpassing “Doner Kebabs” on that google search page.

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