WHO to request cholera vaccines for Haiti as cases surge worldwide

UNICEF and WHO lead an oral cholera vaccine campaign amid an acute cholera outbreak in Yemen, in September 2019. (Credit: Keystone/EPA/Yahya Arhab)

Cholera has returned to Haiti after three years without any confirmed cases, prompting the UN health agency to deploy countermeasures.

The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Tuesday it would seek to obtain oral vaccines to quell an outbreak of cholera in the Caribbean island that has so far killed at least seven people, according to figures by national authorities. Cases could have gone undetected and figures could be even higher, WHO spokesperson Christian Lindmeier told reporters in Geneva.

The health agency said it was preparing a request to the International Coordination Group on Vaccine Provision, a joint programme by WHO, UNICEF, the International Federation of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders, tasked with providing vaccines for emergency disease outbreaks. The group manages the global stockpile of vaccines for cholera, as well as ebola, meningitis and yellow fever.

Zoom in. Haiti was first struck by an outbreak in 2010, which originated in a UN peacekeeping camp, and had managed to almost eradicate the disease, with zero cases confirmed in the last three years.The country has spiralled into political turmoil and violence in recent years while relentless earthquakes, hurricanes and other extreme weather events deal blow after blow to the economy.

Rampant gang activity has made certain areas of the country affected by the outbreak difficult to access, complicating the humanitarian response, the WHO said. This has been made worse in recent weeks as a historic surge in inflation and fuel prices has triggered protests, looting and roadblocks. Fuel shortages and halts in public transport have made it difficult for hospitals to function and patients and health workers to commute.

“It's very important now to get assistance on the ground as soon as possible,” Lindmeier said, adding that the WHO was working with local actors to provide medicines and equipment to contain and prevent the spread.

The global picture. The illness causes acute diarrhoea and can be caught from drinking contaminated water or food. The WHO warned last Friday that cases were surging this year in places hit by poverty and conflict, with a total of 26 countries declaring outbreaks in the first nine months of 2022, compared to less than 20 countries between 2017 and 2021. Countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Somalia and Mozambique have seen a surge in cases this year.

The WHO was especially worried about a rise in fatality rates in 2021, compared to previous years. Cholera is easily treated with fluids and in some cases antibiotics, but if it isn’t, it can kill in a matter of hours.Only a few million doses of cholera vaccines are available until the end of the year.

As climate change causes conditions to change and temperatures to rise, ancient diseases like cholera will have new opportunities to reemerge, the WHO warned.