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Far From the Last: The Impact of Waterborne Illness in Haiti

Crystal Wells - March 22, 2010

ARTICLE HIGHLIGHTS

  • Typhoid, a bacterial disease spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or fluid, is easily preventable.
  • Max, a 17 year-old Haitian girl with typhoid, has been a patient at Port-au-Prince's University Hospital ICU tent for nearly two months.
  • Max is only one of thousands of Haitians whose homes were completely destroyed by the earthquake, forcing them to live on the street where clean water is almost impossible to find.

March 22nd marks the 18th World Water Day, a date set aside each spring by United Nations proclamation to celebrate the importance of fresh water. For those living in the Developed World, it’s a chance to remember that an estimated 900 million people globally still lack access to the minimum daily required amount of safe fresh water. This is the story of what befell one of those 900 million.

Max is a petite 17-year-old Haitian girl, who lay in the ICU tent at Port-au-Prince’s University Hospital, her belly swollen and bandaged. In the next bed was another woman in the same condition.

Max, like the woman next to her, came to University Hospital with sharp stomach pain and a swollen abdomen. In the United States these symptoms would likely be appendicitis. Not in Haiti. Following the Jan. 12th earthquake that destroyed so much of the capital, hundreds of thousands now live in overcrowded, hastily thrown-together tent cities, at risk to something practically nonexistent in most of the developed world – typhoid.

I was introduced to Max and her attentive father, Jacksone, at the University Hospital, where International Medical Corps has been working since January 14.  Her battle with the disease has been going now for two months.

When I learned why this beautiful, young, and otherwise healthy woman laid in a hospital bed for nearly two months, I had to share it. I share it for her and because I know the monsoon-like spring rains now bearing down on Haiti will certainly claim more victims amid post-earthquake Haiti’s large displaced population.

When the 7.0-earthquake hit the country more than two months ago, clean water and sanitation, already issues for Haiti, became that much worse. Heavy rains will only add to that misery and to the threat of disease, including typhoid.

The tragedy is that typhoid is easily preventable. Vaccination is routine for infants born in the Developed World. As a bacterial disease spread by eating or drinking contaminated food or fluid, typhoid is also prevented through clean water, sanitation, and hygiene.

Max’s story is similar to that of thousands of Haitians. Their home was completely destroyed in the earthquake and they were forced to live on the street, without even a tent for shelter.  Clean water was also impossible to find. 

“In the first few days, many of the water pipes were broken, so I would collect our water from them and boil it for my family,” said Jacksone.

Despite the boiled water, Max started to complain of stomach pain.  The pain persisted for days and her belly began to swell. When Jacksone took her to the University Hospital, she was rushed into surgery to remove part of her bowel.  

“In severe cases of typhoid, the bowel can swell and, like a balloon filling with water, it eventually bursts, leaking human waste into the rest of the system,” said Megan Coffee, an infectious disease specialist at University Hospital.  “The only option at that point is to do surgery to repair the bowel and then clean the human waste away.”

And that is exactly what Max went through - and the woman beside her. “If she did not have surgery, she would have been in real trouble,” said International Medical Corps volunteer, Dr. Susan Levine from Connecticut.

I am told that Max will recover and, with the diligent care of International Medical Corps volunteer doctors and nurses, I do not doubt it.  But as the spring rains prepare to roll in, I can’t help but wonder how many others here will suffer from typhoid in the coming months.

As I was leaving the ICU tent, Levine pointed out a man tossing and turning restlessly on his cot. “He is another one who came in with severe typhoid and required surgery,” she said.

And definitely not the last.

As we mark World Water Day, please help us spread the word about waterborne illnesses like typhoid by sharing this story with your family and friends.  

 

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