Cholera in Haiti: One Student’s Journey into the Epidemic

August 10, 2012

In late May, Meghan Dhaliwal and I started our student fellowships at the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, a Washington, DC based non-profit that provides grants to international journalists to cover underreported issues.  As part of a campus consortium partnership, Boston University offers one fellowship from both the School of Communication and School of Public Health to synthesize public health reporting with international journalism.  This summer, our project will revolve around the continuing cholera epidemic in Haiti: seemingly, the only place on earth hotter than DC.

I packed my clothes, started eating malaria prophylaxis, and left the stifling heat of Washington, DC for the stifling heat of Port au Prince, Haiti.  My project, along with Meghan Dhaliwal of BU’s School of Communication, was to report on the continuing cholera epidemic. In our first three days, Meghan and I interviewed lawyers, doctors, Partners in Health officials, and cholera victims in rural areas where the epidemic began.  In twelve hours, we traversed socioeconomic scale of the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

After several busy days based out of Port-au-Prince (you can drive most anywhere in Haiti that has roads in a day), we traveled into the countryside to visit some of the medical institutions that dealt with the brunt of the cholera epidemic.  In Deschapelles, a rural town cloistered in the Artibonite Valley of Haiti, the days of the rainy season are hot and dry and dusty this year.  The air is difficult to pull into your lungs and the streets bleach to white.  Then, usually just before dinner, and only for an hour or so, the rain comes.  The first drops hit the corrugated tin roofs like a blacksmith’s hammer.  All the rain that follows builds like applause in an acoustically perfect auditorium until the day is a distant memory: the air is refreshing, hydrating even, and the ditches and canals flash flood with chalky water.  When the rain leaves, it is with haste and indifference, trailing guttural echoes of thunder like the booted footsteps of a heavyset man walking away down a hall.  The lack of rain is bad for the crops, which lay yellowed in the flat fields, but good for cholera – that is to say, there is less.

The rainy season represents more in Haiti than simply days culminating in a storm.  For the continuing cholera epidemic, the flooding water represents surges of cases.  However, something that captivates me in particular about cholera in Haiti is not the rainy season spike: the annual cycle is typical of the disease in its endemic stage.  Instead, it is how much the disease is an institution in Haiti.   Images of men holding their cholera certificates, women and children showing their cholera vaccine cards, and the well-filed paper records at cholera treatment centers illuminate a battered public health system attempting to account for human suffering.  In the Bureau des Advocats Internationaux offices, where lawyers prepare a case of over 15,000 cholera-affected Haitians against the UN, there are towers of boxes stacked three deep and four tall holding the case paperwork.   For some reason the plethora of papers represented more tangibly what cholera will mean in Haiti as an endemic disease.  The paper, to me, acknowledges that this country is preparing to deal with cholera for decades to come.

Meghan and I have more than a week left in Haiti.  For now, there is little rain and most of the cholera treatment centers are empty.  However, the stark reminder we see everywhere are boxes and files that record the short hours and days when many Haitians either died from, or survived, cholera.