Laurence, a 58-year-old Haitian woman who works in my building, woke up with sharp pain and fever and thought she was dying. She was unable to rise from her bed or hold a glass of water because of the pain in her joints. She could not believe this was a real disease, surmising it must be a voodoo spell that her neighbor put on her.
Unfortunately, her illness, a mosquito-borne virus called Chikungunya, is becoming more and more familiar in Haiti, throughout the Caribbean, and even in Florida, where travellers to the Caribbean have reported cases.
There have been outbreaks of Chikungunya in Africa, Asia and Europe in the past, but the virus arrived in the western hemisphere only in 2013, in the Caribbean. Today, there are cases reported in 16 Caribbean countries. Chikungunya has not yet been transmitted between people in the United States, but that could change in the near future.
The debilitating symptoms usually last for 1 to 2 weeks but, for some, joint pain lasts for months or even years. Chikungunya is not fatal, but this is the kind of small disaster that keeps slowing Haiti’s development.
We are used to big disasters, like the huge earthquake that hit us in 2010 and the ensuing chaos that plagues us still. As we continue to recover and rebuild, we need support not just for the catastrophes that grab headlines, but with the smaller but growing problems like Chikungunya, which are perhaps even more insidious because they seem banal.
Haiti’s Ministry of Health recently confirmed 14 cases. The next week there were 1,529 cases of infection. This represents an almost unprecedented spread of disease leading to some schools in Port-Au-Prince closing to allow the fumigation of classrooms. We’re getting very nervous about “The Fever,” as Chikungunya is sometimes called in Haiti.
May marks the beginning of one of the two rainy seasons here in Haiti. With rain come mosquitoes. At my organization, PSI, as with other public health programs, this is a time when we put more emphasis on water-borne illnesses, hygiene, sanitation and diseases like malaria and dengue fever. Now, we add Chikungunya to that list.
Some would argue that valuable international support should not be allocated to a non-deadly disease with mostly reversible side effects. But it is these kinds of temporarily debilitating maladies that hold countries like Haiti back. Malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases are mostly prevalent in the poorest countries. In Haiti, it prevents adults from working and children from going to school, and adds work to the already overburdened public health care system. The good news is that economic models show that basic prevention products can reduce these impacts. As the poorest country in the western hemisphere, Haiti cannot afford to lose more productive days.
We know that Haitians are up to the challenge. The Ministry of Health’s national strategic malaria plan, along with support from the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has led to a dramatic drop in the prevalence of malaria to less than one percent in 2014 from 4.6 percent in 2003. Today, we can proudly say that Haiti is on the road to eradicating malaria.
These efforts to eradicate malaria, however, aren’t enough. The mosquitoes that transmit Chikungunya are a different species and are active during the day. As a result, bed nets—which stop transmission of malaria while people sleep—are less effective for Chikungunya and those working outside during daylight hours are at a higher risk of exposure. Chikungunya won’t be defeated in the course of eradicating malaria.
As a Haitian, a mother, and a public health worker with 16 years of experience in the country, I believe we can do better. Like a swarm of mosquitoes, pesky small disasters can debilitate a country. The United States and other international funders should not overlook this problem simply because it isn’t fatal and not yet spreading at home. We’re tired of disasters here in Haiti, and would like a fighting chance to develop into the thriving nation I know we can be.
Anick Supplice Dupuy is the Executive Director of PSI Haiti, an NGO that focuses on promoting HIV/AIDS prevention, Malaria, Family planning and maternal and child health through social marketing and communication programs. She is a 2014 Aspen New Voices Fellow at the Aspen Institute.