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After the Earthquake: Cholera in Haiti and How You Can Help

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What is the worst food poisoning you have ever had?

"I remember waking up drenched in sweat with an intense stabbing pain in my abdomen. I could hear my intestines gurgling and my heart began to palpitate as I stumbled my way to the restroom. The cramps felt like all my organs were thrown into a WWE match focused on ripping each other inside out. The violent non-stop diarrhea synchronized with head-spinning nausea-induced vomiting caused severe dehydration. This excruciating process left my body sagging limp and drained, my face hanging ghoulishly, and my mind teetering between consciousness and unconsciousness. Luckily for me I was able to receive medical attention immediately and recovered fully after just several days. Imagine having to experience that for three days or even a week without the guarantee of recovery."

-- Khanh Vien, a student at Tufts University reflecting on an experience with food poisoning and the sheer horror of Cholera.

Cholera: a completely treatable and preventable illness that infects up to 5 million people and kills over 120,000 of those people each year. Nearly half of all cholera cases occur in children under the age of five. It is extremely treatable when caught early, but can cause fatal rapid dehydration within hours.

If it is so easy to treat, why do so many continue to suffer from this illness?

Let us start with some background information on cholera. It's a bacterial infection of the digestive system that causes profuse diarrhea and ultimately dehydration. Cholera is contracted through the consumption of contaminated water or food. In October 2010, 10 months after the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, the CDC declared a cholera outbreak in Haiti. It is widely acknowledged that this is the worst cholera outbreak in recent history.

Now, nearly four years later, the most recent tally (May 29th, 2014) indicates there has been a cumulative 8,561 deaths and 702,892 confirmed infections, though this does not take into account the many others that have gone unreported. What is more devastating is that it is clear that the disease was introduced to Haiti as a result of untreated sewage from the United Nation's base which was dumped into a nearby river.

Access to clean water is essential to the prevention and treatment of cholera, in order to prevent the ingestion of waterborne bacteria and the contamination of food due to preparation with unsanitary water. Educating communities on the risk of cholera, methods of transmission, and preventative behaviors is an important aspect of preventing cholera. To actually treat cholera, oral rehydration salts (ORS) are used to rehydrate the body and help it retain water.

According to Save the Children, ORS costs just 20 cents per treatment, but even with treatment patients remain ill for three to six more days. This extended period of being ill and bedridden causes the patient to be further malnourished and often results in attending family members falling sick as well. Though cholera is treatable, it is far preferable to prevent the disease in the first place.

In this short and aptly named video "The Story of Cholera," how cholera infiltrated the Haitian population is explained.

According to the USAID website, as of December 2013, the United States of America has spent over 2.7 billion dollars towards relief, recovery, and reconstruction efforts in Haiti following the earthquake and cholera outbreak. In addition to the large government funding organizations such as USAID, UNICEF, or WHO, there has been an influx of well-intentioned smaller organizations that have been attempting to help stop the cholera outbreak, mostly by distributing unsustainable handouts.

Unlike other groups, Community Chlorinators, started by the Archimedes Project, is focused establishing a long-term collaboration between on-the-ground partners, local entrepreneurs, and their own hub staff. This ground-up collaboration is an efficient and sustainable approach to accomplishing their goal of eliminating cholera through prevention education and water chlorination.

Their plan consists of three steps. The first is to identify strong community-based organizations to serve as long-term partners and help the Archimedes Project identify and train local staff. Secondly, the local partners assist the Archimedes Project in hiring and training individuals in the community to become clean water entrepreneurs. Lastly, these enterprising individuals will supply chlorine for water purification, as well as water treatment and cholera prevention education, to their friends, families, and neighbors, at a price they will be able to afford.

Community Chlorinators relies upon local staff and entrepreneurs to run the local community hub offices, educate the community, and most importantly, to deliver the cholera awareness and prevention messaging in a manner that resonates with the local community, in order to achieve its mission of clean water for neighbors, by neighbors. Women in particular will be recruited for these entrepreneurial roles, as women are most frequently the member of the household responsible for managing the water supply. This will open up an employment and educational opportunity for women, as well as facilitate relatability between entrepreneur and client. In addition to establishing a network to increase access to clean water, this system provides a conduit by which an area could potentially be supplied with ORS and other health aids.

Because it is designed to exist without large inflows of outside help, this model is much more self-sufficient and less donation-reliant than previous interventions. The local staff and entrepreneurs are supported by the sales of chlorine in the community, and families are able to afford clean water to stay safe and healthy without needing to purchase expensive bottled water. Community Chlorinators is establishing its first two community hubs this summer.

This is an innovative and worthy project that works with the local community to build something that they want and need. You can learn more about their work by reading their crowdfunding campaign page.

If you would like to get involved, get in touch with them via contact@archimedesproject.com

For more information on the Archimedes Project please visit their website.

Thanks to Tufts University student Khanh Vien and Archimedes Project Founders Laura Carpenter and Faith Wallace-Gadsden for their contributions to this piece.