March 28, 2012
The rainy season is returning to Haiti, and so is an expected increase in cholera infections. There have been as many deaths – 13 – in the last eight reported days as there were in all of January or February this year. Yet red tape and funding shortfalls are hampering prevention and treatment efforts.
NPR health correspondent Richard Knox presented a lengthy report yesterday on a cholera vaccination program that has yet to be implemented, despite consensus from the Haitian government, the World Health Organization, the Pan American Health Organization, and the CDC that it could be effective. The program, which will provide vaccines to some 100,000 people, is now awaiting the conclusions of a national ethics committee, “which wants assurance that the vaccine is no longer considered experimental.” The organizations administering the program, Partners in Health and GHESKIO, had hoped to get it underway in January.
Meanwhile, the spring rains are beginning. Cholera cases are starting to climb, because the floods spread the cholera bacterium around.
“We know it’s going to rain, we know it’s going to flood,” says Dr. Vanessa Rouzier, “so we are afraid we are wasting precious time.”
Rouzier works with GHESKIO, a Haitian medical group that is organizing the vaccination project in Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The rural arm is sponsored by Partners in Health in the Artibonite River valley, where cholera first appeared.
The two groups have been planning the demonstration project for more than a year.
Greater challenges to the overall aid effort are posed by a shortfall in funds. UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Haiti Nigel Fisher yesterday warned that, as Reuters reported, “a lack [of] aid money for Haiti was putting hundreds of thousands of displaced people at risk by forcing humanitarian agencies to cut services.” The same thing happened in the run up to last year’s rainy season, resulting in an immense spike in cholera cases. The Miami Herald’s Jacqueline Charles wrote:
United Nations humanitarian agencies and the Haitian government launched an urgent appeal Tuesday for roughly $60 million in funding to provide services from April to June to camp dwellers, and to help Haiti cope with an ongoing cholera epidemic that is expected to surge with the onset of the rainy season. The appeal comes as a lack of funding continue to force aid organizations to pack up and leave, and as at least one group — the International Red Cross — considers building a hotel and conference center with it remaining funds as part of its exit strategy.
“Haitians are still living in deteriorating shelters and tents literally falling apart while donors sit on cash intended to help them,” said Elise Young, senior policy analyst at ActionAid USA, an antipoverty agency working in several camps for victims of the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake. “A very tangible indication of the lack of donation disbursements is the decline in cholera prevention and response.’’
Philippe Verstraeten, head of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Haiti, said the lack of financial resources at the disposal of the humanitarian community is curtailing its ability to help Haiti’s most vulnerable population affected by a series of shocks, including the earthquake, food insecurity and the cholera epidemic.
Meanwhile, of the $231 million Haiti’s humanitarian community is seeking for 2012, only 8.5 percent has been funded, the UN’s chief humanitarian coordinator Nigel Fisher said Tuesday. A $382 million humanitarian request made in 2011 only received 55 percent funding. “Underfunding threatens to stunt growing relocation initiatives to safe housing that already benefited hundreds of thousands,” Fisher said. “It threatens to reverse gains achieved in the fight against cholera through the promotion of sanitary and hygiene practices. It threatens the very existence of hundreds of thousands of [internally displaced persons] still living in camps.
Fisher said the $53.9 million urgent appeal launched Tuesday is needed for the next three months to provide among other things: potable water and hygiene services in camps; flood protection; and cholera response. Funds also will go toward protecting vulnerable camp populations from sexual abuse and violence.
Both the stalled vaccination program and the under-funded UN humanitarian appeal are reminders that there are humanitarian emergencies that urgently need the international community’s and the Haitian government’s attention. It’s well past the time that they treat these as the emergencies that they are.