March 22, 2016

Impact on Haiti: ZIKA Virus and other Infectious Diseases

A Look at Infectious Diseases in Haiti

The people of Haiti suffer from a number of diseases, most of which are directly related to poor sanitation and the lack of sterile drinking water.

Impact of Access to Potable Water on Haitian Health

In rural areas especially, clean and potable water is frequently not available.  People in these areas often get their water from unprotected wells, unprotected springs, and rivers. These same water sources are also used as latrines, so people are drinking and bathing in the same water that someone upstream may have just urinated or defecated into.

In Haitian cities and towns, the availability of clean drinking water is sometimes just as challenging as in the countryside.  Urban residents without access to potable water typically get their drinking water from open drums that collect rainwater and unprotected wells. This water easily becomes tainted with disease-producing bacteria.

Some people drink water from bottles or small plastic bags. This water is bottled and sold by local private companies. However, just because it’s bottled doesn’t mean it’s sterile.

Haiti has faced challenges in both clean water supply and sanitation for a long time. Sewer systems and wastewater treatment plants are either nonexistent or often compromised.

Leading Causes of Illness

Waterborne Disease

Because of the lack of sanitary living conditions and potable water, Haitian people are perpetually exposed to waterborne diseases. These include bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, Hepatitis A and E, and typhoid fever. Haitians are also exposed to vector-borne diseases. Vector-borne diseases are carried by insects like mosquitoes and are transmitted to people through insect bites.

Vector-borne Diseases

Chikungunya is a mosquito-borne viral disease that more commonly occurs in cities and towns than in the country. It’s similar to Dengue Fever. A person with Chikungunya experiences a sudden fever as well as rashes and severe joint pain. Mosquitoes that breed in standing water also carry malaria, Dengue Fever, yellow fever, and encephalitis.

The ZIKA virus is a new outbreak where in January 2016 the first cases were reported from Haiti, which is not a surprise since this virus transmits also through mosquitoes.

This virus causes rash, fever, muscle and joint pains similar to the other mosquito-borne illnesses we just discussed. There is also an association with Zika virus and microcephaly (abnormal smallness of the brain in fetus) and this is why pregnant women should be particularly be cautious and use mosquito repellent to protect their fetus.

Concerning Cholera

For Haitians, cholera continues to be a major health problem. Cholera is an infectious disease that causes severe diarrhea. This can lead to dehydration and if it’s not treated can even result in death. Cholera is caused by eating food or drinking water that has been contaminated with the cholerae bacterium. Cholera never existed in Haiti prior to 2010.

The cholera epidemic that began after Haiti’s earthquake in 2010 continued for several years. Hundreds of thousands of people were infected.

The earthquake left 350,000 people homeless. They were housed in temporary camps where the living conditions were extremely unsanitary. Despite the people’s efforts to live cleanly and safely they were not able to protect their health. We knew that cholera was a risk but in light of Haiti’s already poor water sanitation and infrastructure the people were helpless. This is why in 2012 Dr. Coupet (CEO of SPARK Health) had advocated for a comprehensive model to treat cholera in Haiti which included acute care, vaccination but also education and water screening for cholera.

Tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are other diseases that many Haitians have also suffered from which is not a surprise in light of Haiti being one of the most impoverished country in Latin America.

Unsanitary living conditions, lack of access to clean, potable water and overall poor public health infrastructure are the main factors that have led to such widespread challenges with infectious diseases in Haiti.