March 22nd marks the 18th World Water Day, a date set aside each spring by the United Nations proclamation to celebrate the importance of fresh water. For those living in the Developed World, it's a chance to remember that an estimated 900 million people globally still lack access to the minimum daily required amount of safe, fresh water.
I visited Haiti recently with International Medical Corps and in the ICU tent at Port-au-Prince University Hospital I met Max, a petite 17-year-old Haitian girl with a swollen, bandaged stomach. In the next bed was another woman suffering from the same condition.
In the United States, people with these symptoms, would likely have appendicitis. But not in Haiti. Following the Jan. 12 earthquake that destroyed so much of the capital, hundreds of thousands now live in overcrowded, hastily thrown-together tent cities and are at risk of developing typhoid.
When I learned why this beautiful, young, and otherwise healthy woman lay in a hospital bed I had to share her story -- for both Max and the many victims now experiencing the monsoon-like spring rains in Haiti.
When the 7.0 earthquake hit the country more than two months ago, clean water and sanitation, already issues for Haiti, became that much worse. Heavy rains will only add to that misery and to the threat of disease, including typhoid.
Typhoid, in the developed world, is easily preventable. Vaccination is routine for every infant born and clean drinking water, sanitation and good hygiene make the disease almost non-existent.
Max's story is similar to that of thousands of Haitians. Their home was completely destroyed in the earthquake and they were forced to live on the street, without even a tent for shelter. Clean water was also impossible to find.
I was introduced to Max and her attentive father, Jacksone, at the University Hospital, where International Medical Corps has been working since January 14.
According to Jacksone, "In the first few days, many of the water pipes were broken, so I would collect our water from them and boil it for my family."
Despite the boiled water, Max started to complain of stomach pains. The pain persisted for days and her belly began to swell. When Jacksone took her to the University Hospital Max was rushed into surgery to remove part of her bowel.
"In severe cases of typhoid, the bowel can swell and, like a balloon filling with water, it eventually bursts, leaking human waste into the rest of the system," said Megan Coffee, an infectious disease specialist at University Hospital. "The only option at that point is to do surgery to repair the bowel and then clean the human waste away."
And that is exactly what Max went through. "If she did not have surgery, she would have been in real trouble," said International Medical Corps volunteer Dr. Susan Levine from Connecticut.
I am told that Max will recover and with the diligent care of International Medical Corps volunteer doctors and nurses, I do not doubt it. But as the spring rains prepare to roll in, I can't help but wonder how many others here will suffer from typhoid in the coming months.
As I was leaving the ICU tent, Levine pointed out a man tossing and turning restlessly on his cot. "He is another one who came in with severe typhoid and required surgery," she said.
And definitely not the last.
As we mark World Water Day, please help us spread the word about waterborne illnesses like typhoid by sharing this story with your family and friends.