Amid cholera outbreak in Haiti, a scramble to get soap

A cholera epidemic has spread into Haiti's capital, imperiling nearly 3 million people living in Port-au-Prince, nearly half of them in unsanitary tent camps for the homeless from the Jan. 12 earthquake.
By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 15, 2010; 12:51 PM

PORT AU PRINCE - The difference between life and death in Haiti is now an ordinary bar of soap.

Soap could slow the terrifying cholera outbreak that is quickly spreading and has just in the past week entered the ravaged capital, according to health care specialists and international aid groups.

But in the squalid slums of Port au Prince and the river towns where the cholera outbreak began three weeks ago, many Haitians held up their hands and shook their heads, saying they had no soap to stop an infection that is spread by contaminated food and water, and where a vigorous hand-washing, especially after using the toilet, is the number-one way to save lives.

A cake of yellow Haitian soap costs about 50 cents. But many Haitians do not have soap, because they cannot it afford it. More than half of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day.

"They buy food instead," said Gaelle Fohr, a coordinator for hygiene programs in Haiti for the U.N. Children's Fund.

"We borrow, we buy, but right now, we don't have any soap in the house, I am sorry to say," said Joceline Jeune, living with three children in a hillside shanty at the edge of a displaced persons camp, as a gutter filled with greasy gray water flowed inches from her front door.

When confronted by dubious toilets or flyspecked markets, people here daily use the expression, "mikwob pa touye ayisyen," which translates "germs don't kill Haitians."

"As hard as it is to believe, Haiti still needs soap. They have many needs, but soap - and access to clean water - is absolutely essential to fight cholera," said Nigel Fisher, the top U.N. humanitarian coordinator, in an interview.

There are plans for more water trucks, and more chlorine in water tanks, wells, and distribution points. But building a modern water and sanitation system will take years. By contrast, experts say, soap is fast and doable, allowing people to clean their hands and food that has been exposed to dirty cholera-tainted water.

Foreign governments, international aid groups and individuals have sent more than $3.4 billion in humanitarian aid here in the 10 months since a tremendous 7.0 earthquake struck the capital, killing about 300,000 people and displacing more than 1.5 million, according to the Haitian government. But poverty is so deep, needs can seem bottomless.

"Haiti has crowded slums, poor hygiene, incredible poverty - before and after the earthquake. This is an extremely contagious, extremely virulent strain. It can kill in a few hours - unless you get help. We have well over a million people in camps, we have a disease that spreads by hand, mouth, touch, water. It can lie dormant for five days. You cannot tell who is infected," said Fisher. "The country is now facing a tremendous challenge with limited resources."

Experts at the Pan American Health Organization forecast 200,000 Haitians will show signs of the disease, while it is possible a million will be infected, but remain asymptomatic carriers still capable of spreading the potentially deadly bacteria.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company