UN: Cholera hits children in Haiti as malnutrition rises

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A cholera outbreak sweeping through Haiti is claiming a growing number of children amid a rise in malnutrition, UNICEF announced on Wednesday.

The deadly combination means about 40% of cholera cases in the impoverished country of more than 11 million people now affect children, with 9 in 10 cases being reported in areas where people are starving, according to the United Nations agency.

“We must expect the worst,” Manuel Fontaine, director of UNICEF’s office for emergency programs, told The Associated Press on Tuesday during a visit to Haiti.

Cholera has killed at least 216 people and sickened more than 12,000 since the first deaths were announced in early October, according to the Haitian Ministry of Health and the Pan American Health Organization. They say about 9,300 people are currently being hospitalized with the disease. Experts believe the number is much higher due to underreporting.

UNICEF and the Haitian government are targeting at least $28 million to provide food, fluids and care to 1.4 million people affected by the crisis, with that number expected to rise as malnutrition worsens, particularly in urban areas like the slum Cite Soleil in Haiti’s capital Port-au-Prince, something that has never been seen before.

“Cholera and malnutrition are a deadly combination, one leading to the other,” Fontaine said.

On a recent morning at the Gheskio Clinic in Port-au-Prince, nurses, doctors and social workers were caring for malnourished children who were also battling cholera.

“It’s a challenge for us,” said Dr. Karine Sévère, who heads the clinic’s cholera unit. “When children are malnourished, it takes longer for them to recover.”

She estimates cases of malnutrition have increased by at least 40% in recent weeks, with nurses feeding children soup in the morning and rice, beans, meat and vegetables in the afternoon to help them gain weight.

It’s food not many parents can afford in a country where about 60% of the population earns less than $2 a day.

Roselord David, 40, says she and her five children were forced to flee Cite Soleil after warring gangs set fire to their home. They temporarily lived in a public park and then moved in with her sister, who continues to struggle to find food for her children.

A social worker who spotted her emaciated 5-year-old daughter in the park urged David to take her to the clinic.

“They told me she was suffering from malnutrition,” David said in a low voice, embarrassed to confide in her about her family’s problems in the overcrowded clinic.

A 15-year-old teenager slept nearby, an IV in his thin arm.

His girlfriend Island Meus said she would take turns with his mother to look after him.

“He sometimes goes without food,” she confided, adding that he occasionally has a bowl of rice with plantains when his family can afford it.

The Haitian government recently requested cholera vaccines, but there are shortages of them worldwide and 31 countries are reporting outbreaks, so it’s unclear if and when they will arrive. However, Fontaine said Haiti would be given priority.

The country’s first cholera infection occurred in 2010 after UN peacekeepers from Nepal introduced the bacterium through sewage into the country’s main river. Almost 10,000 people died and more than 850,000 became ill.

The situation is more complicated this time, said Boby Sander, Haiti director of Food for the Hungry. Almost half of those infected with cholera are now under the age of 15 and are struggling to survive as the malnutrition crisis worsens, he said in a telephone interview.

The situation is also worsening as gang violence has increased and aid groups are being prevented from reaching those who need them most.

“It’s really complex,” he said. “We must act now”