October 27 2010

Using information to prevent cholera at the SOS Hermann Gmeiner Primary School in Haiti

26/10/2010 - A cholera outbreak in Haiti has killed some 300 people and over 3,500 have been infected. The SOS Hermann Gmeiner Primary School in Santo uses information as a prevention tool.

Photo: Hilary Atkins
Demonstration of how to wash your hands - Photo: Hilary Atkins

For the second time today, the head teacher of the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School Santo in Haiti, Mr Charles Myrtil, is conducting a hand-washing demonstration for the school’s pupils. A cholera outbreak on the island seems to be spreading and he is concerned that children who attend the school may contract the disease. It is not difficult to catch cholera once it reaches a drinking water supply and its effect can be fatal. But equally, it is fairly easy to prevent with simple hand washing procedures and hygiene awareness. Mr Myrtil therefore decided that knowledge and information was the best prevention policy.

Haiti has not had a cholera outbreak for about 100 years, so lack of knowledge about the disease combined with post-earthquake conditions where people live in temporary camps and share basic ablution facilities mean that it is essential to contain it. The SOS Hermann Gmeiner Primary School in Santo is a perfect place to start, especially as over 900 children are regular students, attending in two shifts. That’s why Mr Myrtil has to do the demonstration twice.

How to spot the signs of cholera

Standing on the steps leading to the upper level, Mr Myrtil uses a microphone to get the children’s attention as they line up below. He begins by explaining what cholera is, describing the symptoms of fever, diarrhoea and vomiting. He follows this with an explanation of how drinking water can become contaminated, especially when people are living without the benefit of flushing toilets and a working sewage system. In addition, he says, the risks are greater during the rainy season (which it is now) when dirty water can be drained into the drinking supply.

Photo: Hilary Atkins
Pupils of the SOS Hermann School in Port-au-Prince are waiting for the washing demonstration - Photo: Hilary Atkins

Demonstrating good hand washing techniques

Assuming that most of his pupils are not getting their water from a kitchen tap, Mr Myrtil asks one of the boys to demonstrate proper hand washing procedures. Using a bowl, one person pours clean water over another’s hands while the recipient applies soap. More water is then used for rinsing and the children are advised to dry their hands in the air, rather than with a towel (this is easy to do in Haiti where the average temperature right now is over 30 centigrade).

Mr Myrtil advises his pupils to wash their hands as often as possible, and definitely before every meal and after using latrines and toilets. He also tells them to treat all their drinking water with either chlorine or a soluble purifier and to wait 20 minutes before drinking it.

The strength is in the multiplier effect

The head teacher may be talking to children but the strength of his message, he says, its multiplier effect. The children will go home and tell their parents what they have seen and in turn those adults will do the same. And the teachers will continue to reinforce the message while the cholera alert continues.
"The first step in the prevention process is information", concludes Mr Myrtil as he winds up the demonstration to loud applause from his young audience.