Even with the city still recovering from the earthquake, the CDC and the Haitian Ministry of Public Health and Population was able to distribute drugs and vaccines to 2.5 million people around Port-au-Prince. 

Haiti‘s government has been in the public crosshairs in the three years since a catastrophic earthquake killed more than 200,000 people and left the island nation’s infrastructure decimated. 

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has seen a different side of a government accused of inefficiently managing a deluge of aid money. 

Instead, the global health institution based in Atlanta has found Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health and Population to be an essential partner in addressing health challenges emerging from the disaster and beyond, from a cholera outbreak to an insufficient vaccination regime.

The relationship has gone so well that the groups are moving in together. 

They held a Feb. 25 ribbon-cutting in Port-au-Prince for two buildings constructed with $3.2 million from the CDC Foundation and other partners. Funded mostly by private contributions, the complex will become a permanent home for the health ministry, which lost its facilities in the earthquake, as well as some of the CDC’s field operations. 

During a World Affairs Council of Atlanta briefing Feb. 21, Jordan Tappero, director of the CDC’s health systems reconstruction office, affirmed the strength of the partnership. 

It had to materialize quickly, he said. The CDC had a small presence before the disaster but quickly began sending in teams. More than one-third of the nearly 1,000 CDC staffers who worked on Haiti in the 15 months after the earthquake spent 30 days or more on the ground there. 

Cholera was the first major challenge. The bacteria is said to have been introduced by United Nations aid workers from Nepal just after the earthquake. More than 8,000 people have died from the disease in the three years since. 

But it could’ve been much worse, Dr. Tappero said. The health ministry had just upgraded its national labs with the capacity to verify the disease and report it to the world.

The ministry launched a proactive response with the CDC aimed at reducing the “case fatality ratio,” the proportion of people who die after contracting a disease. Within weeks of the outbreak, the ratio was brought from 7 percent down to 2 percent. Now it hovers around 1 percent, in line international standards.

“Haiti really had a remarkable response to the introduction of a terrible bacteria, and they are able to sustain that response with a low mortality rate even with it present in the environment,” Dr. Tappero said.

The epidemic is far from over, with more than 11,000 cases reported in December 2012, significantly higher than the more than 8,000 reported during the same month in the previous year. The CDC so far has spent about $52 million on its cholera reduction campaign, one-third of that in the first six months after the quake. 

A holistic approach has been necessary. Treating cholera requires constant hydration, a challenge in a country where scant access to clean water and suitable sanitation helped spread the disease in the first place. The CDC’s response has included training 258 water technicians to test water sources, educate locals and keep up proper chlorine water treatments in 140 communities, Dr. Tappero said. 

The Haitian government on Feb. 27 introduced a $2.2 billion plan in partnership with the United Nations and other groups to eradicate cholera from the island of Hispaniola, which Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic. The plan, inaugurated by health minister Florence Guillaume, calls for significant upgrades to Haiti’s sanitation infrastructure, the only way to cut off the disease for good, Dr. Tappero said. 

While Dr. Tappero said it’s a plan everyone can and should get behind, funding remains a challenge. The U.N., which recently rejected monetary claims from the families of those killed by cholera, has only pledged about 10 percent of necessary funds so far.  

“It would make a dramatic and huge difference in public health and lives in the next decade,” Dr. Tappero said. 

Beyond cholera, the CDC and health ministry have worked on mass drug administration campaigns in Port-au-Prince, where 2.3 million people were given drugs to combat lymphatic filariasis, a parasitic disease the center hopes to eradicate over the next few years. They also mounted a campaign to give 2.5 million children measles-rubella and oral polio vaccines. Before the earthquake, coverage for such vaccines was below 50 percent; now it’s at 85 percent. 

WIth the emergency past, the CDC was able to “take a deep breath” and determine its long-term goals for public health in the country, Dr. Tappero said. By 2015, it plans to eliminate all of the following: HIV transmission from mother to child, the threat of epidemic cholera and lymphatic filiriasis, and also to reduce child deaths from vaccine-preventable diseases by 30 percent, tuberculosis cases by 25 percent and maternal mortality by 30 percent. 

Learn more in this article (free, but signup required).

As managing editor of Global Atlanta, Trevor has spent 15+ years reporting on Atlanta’s ties with the world. An avid traveler, he has undertaken trips to 30+ countries to uncover stories on the perils...