Meet a doctor from Boston who’s helping prevent the spread of cholera in Haiti

By Sonia Walia, USAID Disaster Assistance Response Team (DART) Health Adviser

Dr. Naima Joseph, foreground, is a Haitian-American working at a USAID-funded International Medical Corps cholera treatment unit in Les Anglais, Haiti. / Scott Fontaine, USAID

In the wake of Hurricane Matthew, one Haitian-American doctor is fighting back against cholera, a disease that has devastated her parents’ home country.

Starting just after sunrise each morning, Dr. Naima Joseph begins work at the cholera treatment unit in Les Anglais on Haiti’s southern peninsula. For about 12 hours each day, Naima and a dozen Haitian nurses and aides treat patients believed to be suffering from potentially lethal waterborne diseases.

Treating cholera was initially uncharted territory for Joseph, an obstetrician-gynecologist from Boston whose only previous experience with cholera was learning about it in medical school. But when she saw the reports of Hurricane Matthew barreling towards Haiti, she knew that she needed to do something.

“There wasn’t much doubt,” she said. “If I could go, I could go.”

Rapid response on the ground

Given the increased risk of cholera and other diseases, quickly reestablishing health services that were affected by Hurricane Matthew was a top priority for USAID.

In the immediate aftermath of the storm, volunteer health professionals like Naima also rushed to hard-hit communities and went to work saving lives wherever they could. Naima arrived in Haiti on Oct. 9 — just days after Hurricane Matthew made landfall. She spent two days dressing wounds, setting fractures and treating reactive-airway diseases in mobile-medical units.

In that first crucial week, Naima helped get the operating room in Les Cayes’ primary hospital back up and running before turning her attention to suspected cholera cases.

At first, the International Medical Corps (IMC), with support from USAID, set up a cholera treatment unit in a red-brick annex behind Les Anglais’ one-story medical clinic. In that brick building, patients were placed on wooden beds that were often just a few feet from each other. IV bags hung from wood panels nailed into the brick walls. The smell of chlorine filled the air. But, given how contagious the disease can be, it was critical to move cholera patients out of the main health clinic.

“[Moving people out of the clinic] was a critical step,” said Naima, who normally spends her days caring for pregnant women and delivering babies at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The disease can be severe, it can evolve quickly, and people can die rapidly.” Often, she said, “many people are coming in very close to death.”
International Medical Corps staff spray cholera beds with chlorinated water at a cholera treatment unit in Les Anglais, Haiti. / Scott Fontaine, USAID

Naima and the team of medical professionals in Les Anglais see about a dozen patients each day. Many patients seek homeopathic treatment at home and, when that fails, they may arrive at the cholera treatment unit with just hours to live. Naima and the others quickly get to work, providing IV rehydration and antibiotics to help patients fight off the disease.

Setting up cholera clinics is just part of a coordinated effort to prevent, detect, and treat suspected cholera and other diarrheal diseases in Haiti. USAID is working with humanitarian partners, the Government of Haiti, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fix damaged public water infrastructure, restore national disease surveillance systems, and ensure that safe drinking water, as well as hygiene and medical supplies are accessible.

To reach some of the most remote and hard-to-reach hurricane-affected communities, USAID’s Office of U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) worked with IMC to dispatch mobile medical clinics to provide critical health services, including treatment for suspected cholera cases.

Additionally, International Organization for Migration and UNICEF are distributing nearly 5.7 million water purification tablets provided by USAID. The tablets will help provide safe drinking, cooking, and bathing water for 190,000 people for one month. USAID also procured 38 metric tons of chlorine to help the Haitian National Directorate for Water and Sanitation chlorinate piped water systems throughout the entire country for three months, with an immediate focus on high-risk areas.

Healing with the help of the community

The community is also playing an important role in healing after the hurricane and safeguarding against the spread of cholera.

“People bring food for each other,” Naima notes of the generosity of the Haitians to neighbors and strangers. “People arrive at the center to pray for the patients. They keep an eye on each other and keep each other company. This is a community-led response.”

Naima says that the days are long, but rewarding because of the visible impact she is making on the community. She’s not sure when she’ll be heading home to Boston, but she relishes the chance to give back to her parents’ homeland.

“I’ll be here until they don’t need me here anymore,” she said. “When the mission is complete.”

Find more information on USAID’s Hurricane Matthew response efforts here.


About the Author

Sonia Walia is serving on the Hurricane Matthew DART as its health adviser, with a primary focus on mitigating the spread of cholera. She has worked at OFDA since 2011, helping advise host governments and NGO partners about public health risks that arise during and after disasters.