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Doctors Raise Concerns About Possible Cholera Outbreak In Haiti


Doctors in Haiti are worried about a spike in cholera cases. Some 10,000 people died after an outbreak back in 2010. That one was suspected to have been caused in part by U.N. peacekeepers. This time the concern is that widespread flooding from Hurricane Matthew could further fuel the spread of this waterborne disease.

We called up Dr. Unni Krishnan, the director of the Save the Children emergency health unit in Haiti. He was traveling to a remote health center in one of the hardest hit parts of the country, and he said the trip usually takes 20 minutes from where he's staying. But today it was taking more than an hour mainly because people were on the road, waiting for relief supplies.

UNNI KRISHNAN: There is a very long line of people we can see here who is just waiting for a truck to be opened and relief items to be distributed. The police is here. The U.N. forces are here managing the crowd. But from the length of the line you see here and the number of women and some of them carrying children, it's very clear that it should get through quicker and better into some of these remote pockets.

CORNISH: What about that first week after a hurricane lends itself towards fueling a cholera outbreak? What are the factors that can drive that?

KRISHNAN: OK, one - absence of clean water, and because of the storm, the storm water got mixed up with the limited sources of clean drinking water here. So that's one thing. The second thing is the ability of the health system to respond quickly.

And the third is locating specific places where there's a concentration of cases. And the fourth one is targeting and prioritizing the most vulnerable, like children, infants and breastfeeding and pregnant women. These will go a long way in containing the disease outbreak.

CORNISH: You've also been dealing with the World Health Organization. And I know there's an ongoing conversation about trying to get a million doses of the cholera vaccine to the people of Haiti. Given what you've told us, what are some of the difficulties that we're going to encounter in making that happen?

KRISHNAN: It's a question of, how do we ensure that distribution is done in a systematic way? Well, these are the early days, but it's good to see that immediately following the storm, the Haitian government recognizes and the minister of health recognize the risk of the cholera, and they started moving on that quickly. The early recognition and quick action goes a long way in containing a massive outbreak.

CORNISH: In the meantime, do you see Haiti as being in a position to take this on, to prevent another outbreak?

KRISHNAN: This outbreak, if not contained quickly, can get out of control. And there is limited capacity in the country to absorb a shock like this. It is that robust public health system and a good infrastructure are often the two oxygen cylinders which can absorb a shock of a disease outbreak like this.

But unfortunately there is very limited financial resources available, so that's why Haiti needs all the financial support they can get to strengthen the health systems to cope with that. Left to its own, the Haitian Ministry of Health and the government is not in a position to deal with this. They need all the support it can get to contain this.

CORNISH: That's Dr. Unni Krishnan. He's the director of Save the Children's emergency health unit in Haiti. Thank you for speaking with us.

KRISHNAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.