Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today called on the international community to provide immediate massive aid to Haiti to fight a deadly cholera epidemic raging through the impoverished country, warning that hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk.
“Clearly, it will continue to spread, unfortunately,” he told an informal meeting of the General Assembly, noting that the epidemic could affect as many as 650,000 people in the next six months, and that the current toll may already be twice as high as the over 1,800 deaths and nearly 81,000 cases reported so far.
A United Nations appeal launched three weeks ago for $164 million is only 20 per cent funded as the Haitian Government, UN agencies and the humanitarian community seek to provide treatment and put preventive measures in place, supplying water-purification materials, carrying out large-scale public information campaigns, and helping to build treatment centres.
“One thing is clear,” Mr. Ban said. “Admirable as they may be, these collective efforts are simply not sufficient. Without a massive and immediate international response, we will be overwhelmed. The lives of hundreds of thousands of people are at risk. And it is up to us to act, with maximum speed and full resources.”
It was an appeal repeated by Assembly President Joseph Deiss, who told the 192-member body that efforts to prevent the spread of the epidemic cannot wait. “In the current circumstances, the international community must do everything within its power to help the Haitian authorities and people,” he said. “Urgent action must be taken to meet the humanitarian challenges and ease the suffering of the Haitian population.”
Mr. Ban cited the urgent need for more cholera treatment centres, both large and small, and more trained medical and non-medical personnel to run them to minimize the fatality rate, which he noted had decreased over the past six weeks from 7.6 per cent to 3.6 per cent in a country that is still reeling from an earthquake in January that killed 200,000 people and rendered some 1.3 million others homeless.
The UN World Health Organization (WHO) and its regional arm, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), estimate that an additional 350 doctors, 2,000 nurses and 2,200 support staff will be required over the next three months, in addition to the 300 medical personnel that Cuba has already committed.
Some 30,000 community health workers and volunteers also need to be trained to help staff an estimated 15,000 oral re-hydration points, while still others are required to promote better hygiene in camps and communities. Cholera is spread through contaminated food and water – due to poor access to safe water, inadequate sanitation and high population density in the camps.
“It is vital that the Haitian people in all communities are fully informed about how to deal with this disease, and that they understand that cholera is quickly cured if it is quickly diagnosed and treated,” Mr. Ban said. “They need to know what basic steps to take to protect themselves, their families and their communities.
“Vital supplies are desperately needed: water purification tablets, chlorine disinfectant, antibiotics, jerry cans, soap, water cisterns, construction material for latrines. Stocks of oral re-hydration salts must be constantly replenished. It is encouraging that fatality rates have gradually declined over the past six weeks. They remain, however, unacceptably high.”
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported today that 21 million water-purifying aquatabs have or are being distributed – the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) has 190 million in the pipeline – along with 1.7 million bars of soap, 900,000 oral rehydration kits and 4.4 metric tons of chlorine.
Mr. Ban repeated his earlier calls to all political actors to refrain from violence after Sunday’s contested first round of presidential and legislative elections, and to find a solution “before a serious crisis develops,” warning that any social unrest would hinder cholera victims from receiving life-saving treatment.
“This will not be a short-term crisis,” Mr. Ban declared. “We cannot think short-term in our response. Millions of people look to us for immediate survival. At the same time, our response must be viewed within the broader context of recovery and long-term development. Investment in basic infrastructure is critical – clean water, sanitation, healthcare and education, durable shelter and employment.
“Without it, Haiti has no sustainable future, no hope for a better future. Along the way, we must continue to help strengthen Haitian institutions. Haiti needs a strong and legitimate government to overcome the enormous challenges ahead. Sunday’s elections were a milestone in the country’s long and very hard road.”