Information as prevention
For the second time today, the headteacher of the SOS 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 believes that knowledge and information are the best prevention policy.
Haiti has not had a cholera outbreak for more than 100 years, so lack of knowledge about the disease combined with post-earthquake conditions where people live in temporary camps and share basic facilities, mean that it is essential to contain it. The SOS Primary School in Santo is a perfect place to start, especially as it has over 900 regular students.
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.
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 headteacher 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. The teachers will also 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.