Haiti: Red Cross joins international organizations in hygiene drive as rains intensify

The Haitian Red Cross Society (HRCS) joined international NGOs working in water and sanitation in Haiti [on 25 May 2010] to stage a special street event opposite Port-au-Prince’s Place Saint-Pierre camp, where an estimated 6,000 people settled after the 12 January disaster.

HRCS volunteers led a crocodile of some 300 children from the camp around the Place Saint-Pierre square in Pétionville to where an interagency health promotion fair was held in tented stands.

The event was organized by the Hygiene Promotion sub-cluster and included groups like Oxfam and Save the Children.

According to Pauline Mwaniki, coordinator of the sub-cluster, “the fact that there has been no major outbreak of disease is partly due to humanitarian agencies’ efforts to spread hygiene messages.”

“With the rainy season intensifying,” Mwaniki added, “the risks are increasing though due to overcrowding in the camps so we are planning to launch a nationwide health awareness campaign.”

Storm drain

Diarrhoea is one of the leading causes of death of children under five in Haiti. Even before the earthquake, children could expect to fall ill between four and six times a year.

“There is diarrhoea in the camps but our hygiene promotion messages are helping in the fight against the disease, ” said HRCS health coordinator Sherley Bernard, who helped lead the children in songs and dances intended to convey key health messages in a fun way.

“Now that the rainy season has really started, we have to intensify our efforts to ensure camp communities practise good personal hygiene and that they know how to store water safely and dispose of waste.”

The Place Saint-Pierre camp was one of the first in the immediate aftermath of the quake to receive worldwide publicity about its insanitary, overcrowded conditions.

A week after the quake, French television reported from the camp that the focus on providing immediate medical care to victims meant hygiene had to “take a backseat”.

Things are better there now but still far from perfect. People have safe water, but as Friday’s event got underway women stripped to the waist bathed standing up in the newly dug storm drain surrounding the camp.

Hardware

Workers from Save the Children engage children from Place Saint-Pierre camp in Pétionville, Port-au-Prince, in games about key hygiene practices including hand-washing with soap. Photo: José Manuel Jiménez

Led by Red Cross volunteers and staff from the organizations taking part, children from Place Saint-Pierre camp took to the streets to sing about how washing hands with soap and water can save lives.

Amongst them was Milien Robenson, 13, whose family has been living in the camp since their house collapsed.

“It is really good to be able to sing and play games,” he said, “as it takes my mind off the earthquake and I no longer feel so afraid.”

Mothers came from the Place Saint-Pierre camp to hear how washing hands with soap after going to the toilet or before handling food and babies can prevent diarrhoea.

At the Pétionville event, mothers were given a bar of soap to encourage healthy behaviour, but organizers said the biggest challenge is matching messages with actual hardware like drains, toilets and washing facilities.

“We have an integrated approach,” said Gaelle Fohr, an International Federation health promotion delegate, who also spent the day at Place Saint-Pierre.

“In each of the camps where we organize health promotion activities, we also provide water, sanitation and health services.”

So far more than 150,000 people have been reached with hygiene promotion work in more than 100 camps where HRCS volunteers work with the International Federation and National Societies.

Flag day

Twenty-three-year old volunteer Jeanne Jaboin is a trained nurse and works for the French Red Cross in several camps.

Like many of the volunteers she also lost her house in the earthquake and is living with her husband and three children in a makeshift camp by the sea.

“In my camp there are no latrines and the water gets easily contaminated,” says Jaboin, “but at least I can use what I’ve learnt as a Red Cross volunteer to help my community stay healthy and avoid disease.”

Even though some of the HRCS volunteers lost homes, family and livelihoods, they remain committed to helping others less fortunate than themselves.

Saturday’s event had been originally planned for Haitian flag day on 18 May – the anniversary of the adoption of the country’s flag, made from the red and blue of the French tricolour, but it had to be postponed.

“Even at this difficult time we are proud to be Haitians,” said Bernard, “and as Red Cross volunteers we want to do everything we can to contribute to our country’s recovery.”

Source: Claire Doole, IFRC, 25 May 2010

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