ACUL SAMEDI, Haiti – Sitting at the end of a long and heavily rutted dirt road, Acul Samedi is typical of rural villages in this part of northeast Haiti. Remote and poor, it lacks many of the services found in Haiti’s bigger cities.
But Acul Samedi does have a school, a one-story building bursting with children in blue-and-white checked uniforms. And it is here, as in similar schools across the region, that a joint program between the Haitian Red Cross and American Red Cross is trying to build a line of defense against cholera, a disease outbreak that has claimed more than 4,000 lives in Haiti since it first appeared in late October. One goal of the Red Cross program is to educate children about how they can prevent the deadly disease, and what they can do to treat it.
“The sickness has hit a lot of people in this area,” says Orange Obas Resomond, who has been teaching at the Morija school in Acul Samedi for the past 27 years. Rural areas have been particularly susceptible to cholera in recent months, since residents often live far from sources of clean water and medical care.
In fact, the Red Cross has been working to help people in northeast Haiti be healthier for years. Community outreach workers have traveled to rural areas in six communes, sometimes walking two to three hours to reach remote villages.
Having recognized the need to prevent diarrheal diseases well before the cholera epidemic began, the American Red Cross and Haitian Red Cross have built more than 330 latrines in collaboration with local communities in the northeast since 2008. Proper use of latrines, combined with thorough hand-washing, can prevent the spread of diseases such as cholera.
“The northeast is a department with many problems,” says Dr Caroline Jean-Louis, a public health specialist who manages American Red Cross health programs in this region. “There are few schools, few sanitary structures and as a result, this is one of the departments with a lot of sanitary and health issues.”
In addition to community-based hygiene and sanitation programs, the Red Cross has also reached local communities through an anti-malaria program in the region, which has included distribution of 12,500 insecticide-treated mosquito nets. All these programs are part of a proactive effort to educate and empower local populations to improve their own health and prevent the spread of disease.
At the school in Acul Samedi, Rene Lynce – a young Haitian working for the Red Cross – uses a combination of music, question-and-answer sessions and demonstrations to educate a class of attentive 12 and 13-year-olds. They sing “the cholera song,” which has lyrics about boiling and purifying water, thoroughly cooking vegetables and washing hands regularly to prevent the cholera bug. Then they all go outside into the school courtyard and take turns thoroughly washing their hands with soap and water. The sanitary facilities in this part of the country are usually basic – children at the school use latrines – but the Red Cross will leave behind some bars of soap to help the children follow the lessons they have been taught. More than 170 schools in this corner of the country are being targeted as part of the cholera efforts.
The cholera program here is an extension of a wider set of cholera activities the American Red Cross, other members of the Red Cross network and external partners are conducting across Haiti. The American Red Cross has spent or signed contracts to spend about $14.3 million in the fight against cholera.
“Cholera first arrived in the northeast in November,” says Diane Exil, a trained nurse and Haitian Red Cross employee who is coordinating health programs in this area. “Fortunately things are a little better now.”