Main Navigation

Remembering the Haiti earthquake - why clean hands saved lives

In the aftermath of Haiti's devastating earthquake, five years ago, the country learnt one of the most important ways to keep people alive and healthy: get them to wash their hands. Often and thoroughly.

Thursday January 8, 2015

Girl wiht water container
Safe water and hand hygiene were critical elements in containing outbreaks of cholera in Haiti. Photo: American Red Cross/Talia Frenkel

The earthquake, which reduced Haiti's capital to rubble on 12 January 2010, killed more than 230,000 people and left 1.5 million without a home.

While the international community rushed to assist, no one was prepared for the deadly cholera epidemic that followed.  

"The quake took out any infrastructure there had been to provide safe water for drinking and washing," explains Australian Red Cross aid worker Yvette Spero. "There were large groups of people living in tents, and cholera went through the camps like wildfire. And when you have people who are poorly nourished, sick and have insufficient sanitation, it can become a death sentence."  

Cholera claimed a further 7,500 lives. The Red Cross Red Crescent Movement undertook a massive response, which continues to this day. Seven cholera treatment centres were opened to relive the burden on struggling health services, and to ensure that pregnant women and other patients were not exposed to the virus in the overburdened hospitals that remained. Oral rehydration points were set up in 16 locations to help people get the fluids they needed to recover.  

"Cholera was new. Haitians didn't know how it was transmitted and why it's preventable with good hygiene practices, safe water and good sanitation," Yvette recalls. "It got to the point where hand washing stations were set up in front of every office. Instead of shaking hands, people would tap elbows."  

Red Cross recruited volunteers to go door-to-door with a simple but vital message: wash your hands with soap as often as possible. This approach opened doors to further health messages.  

"When we participate in the Red Cross training, we don't keep the information to ourselves and our family," says Ema Samedi, a volunteer from the village of Corail-Anna. "We walk around the community, we go house to house sharing the information with them to let them know how to wash their hands, how to  take care of themselves, and that they shouldn't defecate on the ground anymore to protect their health."  

The approach used during the cholera outbreak remains part of Red Cross practice. Trained Red Cross volunteers help communities identify and respond to the specific health threats they face: from cholera outbreaks in Sierra Leone to tuberculosis in Fiji and even the current Ebola epidemic in West Africa. Hand washing with soap is a crucial message in every one of these situations.

How Red Cross Red Crescent helped after the Haiti earthquake

  • 317,480 people provided with safe drinking water in the aftermath
  • 229,977 people treated in emergency healthcare facilities
  • 52,656 people hospitalised in Red Cross cholera treatment centres
  • 2.6 million people reached with community health information
  • 43,000 families able to access safer shelters
  • 14,000 cubic metres of rubble removed and recycled


Watch video: Rubble Recycled