Global Politics

Dealing with Haiti's cholera victims

The cholera outbreak in Haiti has spread easily because of the poor sanitation following last year's devastating earthquake. More than 3,200 people have died of disease since October. The World's Jeb Sharp spent some time this week with a man who has the job of collecting the bodies of cholera victims.

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It hadn't occurred to me to wonder about the bodies until I heard about public health worker Rochefort Saint-Louis. His official title is cholera coordinator for western Haiti, but basically he collects bodies. He locates them, disinfects them, seals them in plastic body bags, and trucks them to a designated burial ground. The point is to minimize the spread of cholera.

Saint-Louis tells me that the bodies are very dangerous. �People throw them in the street and they have fluid inside them,� he says. �If the fluid comes out and you step on it,� he adds, you could track it home. You might put your hands in your mouth or your kid could touch your shoes.

I meet Saint-Louis in downtown Port au Prince at what used to be a public park. It's now a tent city. He's waiting for me in a little white van with its hazard lights flashing. There's a piece of paper taped to the window that says Emergency Operations Center. It's 10 in the morning and he's already picked up 6 bodies.

Saint-Louis has two colleagues with him. Before we enter the park they put on latex gloves, face masks and bright yellow protective suits. They hoist tanks of chlorinated water onto their backs with spray nozzles attached. I follow their bulky shapes through the narrow passageways between tents and tarps and makeshift shacks.

We're here to pick up the body of a three month old baby named Jenny who died in the night. We find her laid out on a bed in her mother's shack. Her eyes are sunken and cloudy.

There's no ceremony to it�the men simply get to work, dousing Jenny's body with the chlorine solution and gently tucking cotton wool into her ears. �We make sure we close all the holes in the body of the baby,� Saint-Louis says, �the ears, the mouth so the body won't leak the fluid. That's how cholera spreads.�

Once that's done the health workers place the tiny corpse into a plastic body bag and zip it up. Jenny's 24-year-old mother Kattia Alexis waits outside the tent. She seems dazed. She tells us the baby was fine yesterday, happy and smiling. Then suddenly she was sick with vomiting and diarrhea. The mother says she didn't realize the baby was sick with cholera until it was too late.

Saint-Louis, the body collector, doesn't linger. That's partly because his two cell phones keep ringing. But it's also because families sometimes have a hard time parting with the bodies, and Saint-Louis doesn't want any trouble.

The men put Jenny's little corpse in the back of a second white van. No one talks about her. We wash our hands and spray the soles of our feet with the chlorine solution before heading off to find the next body. It's at a neighborhood health clinic on a busy road leading out of the city.

The crew gets straight to work to disinfect the body. It's of a 35 year old man called Marcso St. Felix. Like the baby, he only fell ill the night before. His family brought him to the clinic but it was closed. They tried to flag someone down on the road to take him to hospital but no one would do it. He spent the night dying on the sidewalk.

When the clinic opened in the morning they tried to hydrate him but it was too late. The health workers lay the corpse in a body bag and zip it up. Then they put the bag inside another one and zip that up. They take the body outside. I ask Saint-Louis if he's ever afraid of catching cholera himself. �Afraid?� he says. �No, I'm not afraid. I know how to protect myself.� Then he laughs. �One of my guys caught cholera from not being careful,� he says. �He was in hospital for seven days. He'll be back at work next week.�

I ask Saint-Louis what the biggest challenge is with the cholera epidemic. He tells me it's the lack of education and information. �When I go to pick up a body, sometimes the family tries to fight,� he says. �They deny their relatives have cholera. They blame the vodou man for infecting the water. The government needs to educate people. But don't attack me; I'm trying to prevent cholera, not spread cholera.�
As if on cue, five angry men show up next to the van. They are friends and relatives of the man who died. They're angry the clinic wasn't open last night. They deny St. Felix died of cholera, and they accuse the government of kidnapping the body.

Saint-Louis quietly signals to his men to take the van with the bodies and leave. Then he reasons with the group as best he can, but it's not easy. Everyone is on edge in this ravaged city. These men are grieving the loss of a loved one, but it's hard not to think they're grieving a whole lot more as well.

As the commotion recedes, I ask Saint-Louis where he's headed next. He pauses, grins, and says it's time for lunch. He's going to treat himself with the ten dollars he found in the dead man's trousers.

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