Jessica Brehmer: Contaminated Water Leads to Cholera Outbreak in Haiti

Jessica is currently a graduate student at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health and is employed by the Minnesota Department of Health.  She has a BA in Geography from the University of Minnesota and is a former geography intern with NGS.

For the past month a cholera epidemic has torn through Haiti – a country still trying to get back on its feet after a devastating earthquake earlier this year. Over 500 people have died and thousands more have fell ill to the disease. Cholera is caused by bacteria and is passed by consuming contaminated water or food.  Cholera can cause severe diarrhea and other unpleasant symptoms.

Recently the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) linked the strain of cholera currently affecting Haiti to a strain commonly seen in south Asia. Their scientists matched the patterns of DNA in cholera in Haiti to cholera typically seen in southern Asia. Wait, what?!  Yes, you read that right. Somehow this strain of cholera traveled thousands of miles from Asia to Haiti. So how did bacteria found in Asia end up in Haiti?  Although we may never know with certainty, we can make some good guesses.

In the wake of the earthquake people from around the world came to Haiti bringing food, medical supplies and hopes of rebuilding Haiti. It is probable that cholera traveled with these humanitarian efforts to Haiti. Right now most of the conjecture points to United Nations peacekeepers from Nepal as the source of the epidemic. A possible scenario is that one of the peacekeepers had the cholera bacteria in their stool and unknowingly contaminated a water source.

Although identifying where the outbreak started is great fun for epidemiology students like me, it is really a minor point in such a large and deadly outbreak. Efforts have been focused on preventing more people from becoming ill. This means fixing and maintaining a water treatment infrastructure – which is proving to be difficult after the earthquake, and now after Hurricane Tomas.  For the people who are already sick, oral rehydration therapy has been an effective and inexpensive way to prevent deaths – but distribution of these packets has proved, difficult as many people are hard to reach.

Global travel and trade have made the spread of infectious diseases to distant places much easier.  This should be reason enough to take steps to guarantee clean water for everyone on the planet.  I’d like to hear from you, geographers!  How can we protect the water supply in the face of natural disaster?

Healthmap is a great website to play around on. You can see where water points and cholera treatment facilities are located, compared with the distribution of disease cases. This program also maps the trends on the internet; geotagging news articles, health alerts and more!

Check out this interactive map to see where cholera has had the greatest impact in Haiti:

There are many reputable organizations providing relief and administering oral rehydration therapy.

Check out their website for more information and to donate.

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