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Haiti is facing sanitation emergency

By Frank Bajak and Paisley Dodds
Associated Press / January 31, 2010

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Relief officials are scrambling to confront a sanitation crisis that could spread malaria, cholera, and other deadly diseases throughout the chaotic camps packed with hundreds of thousands of Haitian earthquake survivors.

Shortages of food, clean water, adequate shelter, and latrines are creating a potential spawning ground for epidemics in a country with an estimated 1 million people made homeless by the Jan. 12 quake.

Yesterday, a single portable toilet served about 2,000 people in a sprawling camp across a street from the collapsed National Palace, forcing most to use a gutter that runs next to an area where vendors cook food and mothers struggle to bathe their children.

“We wash the vegetables first from water brought in by trucks, but a lot of times the water isn’t clean,’’ said Marie Marthe, 45, cooking a large pot of collard greens, carrots, and goat as flies gathered on her daughter’s diaper. “We don’t have any choice.’’

Survivors have erected flimsy shelters of cloth, cardboard or plastic in nearly every open space left in the capital.

Women wait until night to bathe out of buckets, shielding their bodies behind damaged cars and trucks. Water is recycled - used first for brushing teeth, then for washing food, then for bathing.

“My 1-year-old has had diarrhea for a week now, probably because of the water,’’ said Bernadel Perkington, 40. “When the earthquake happened I had 500 gourdes (about $15), which I was using for clean water for her. The money for that ran out yesterday.’’

The crowding and puddles of filthy water that breed mosquitoes have begun to spread diseases such as dengue and malaria, which were already endemic in Haiti. Some hospitals report that half the children they treat have malaria.

Tight quarters also expose people to cholera, dysentery, tetanus and other diseases.

Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director of Pan American Health Organization, said nearly three dozen organizations were joining a U.N.-led effort to build latrines and handle solid waste disposal. Authorities also plan to build more permanent resettlement camps with plumbing.