When cholera broke out just months after a devastating earthquake, Haiti’s health system was pushed to the brink. The extraordinary rearguard action that followed offers an object lesson in dealing with a public health crisis
Marie Millande Tulmé was at work in a prison when she received a call confirming her fears: the gruesome sickness spreading rapidly across her nation was indeed cholera.
The head nurse for Haiti’s Central Plateau region at the time, Tulmé was investigating rumours that prisoners were getting violently ill and that two had died. “I thought: ‘Haiti will perish,’” she says, recalling her reaction when Haiti’s national laboratory phoned with the news. “Because I knew that cholera was grave. That it spreads easily.”
Within days, hundreds of people living near the the country’s longest river, the Artibonite, which irrigates rice paddies across central Haiti, were wrapping their sick in bedsheets or carrying them on mattresses to hospitals so crowded that patients were lying head to toe on the pavement outside. Cholera would eventually sicken 800,000 people – nearly 10% of Haiti’s population – and kill 10,000.