Technology in the Time of Cholera, Part II: Using Technology to Diagnose, Treat, and Prevent Cholera in Haiti

| November 15, 2011 | 0 Comments

By Joy Ming
Global Health and Technology Online Columnist

This second segment of a two-part series focuses on the recent use of water purification techniques to control and prevent future outbreaks.

A girl stands surrounded by water in flooded Raboto, a slum area of Gonaives located in the Artibonite Region, where the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is working to contain the cholera outbreak. Image courtesy of UNICEF. 

The earthquake that devastated Haiti two years ago left a trail of destruction that is still visible today.[1] One path of residue is the cholera outbreak that afflicted just over 440,000 and killed nearly 6,300 Haitians.[2]

Cholera is an acute, diarrheal illness caused by the waterborne bacterium Vibrio cholerae, transmitted through infected water sources.  Clean water is critical not only to the prevention but also the treatment of cholera.[3]

According to Dr. Edward T. Ryan, the principal investigator of a lab that focuses on host-bacterial pathogen interactions and immune responses, “The real elephant in the room for dealing with cholera is the root cause, which is that a good chunk of the planet does not have safe water or adequate sanitation.”[4] This is especially true in Haiti, where “many school children…continue to face a lack of access to water and sanitation facilities in schools.”[5]

In order to solve this issue, Ryan poses two questions. What are the obstacles to getting safe water and adequate sanitation to the world’s most disenfranchised and impoverished? Can we use any modern or innovative technologies to begin to address these deficits?[4]

Described as an “acute-on-chronic” event, the cholera outbreak in Haiti is a consequence of the acute event of the earthquake and the chronic infrastructural inadequacies in providing clean water and sanitation.[6]

Traditionally, in the case of a natural disaster, water has been collected through wells and rainwater and the presence of relief agencies “have already shown their chops in providing clean water”.[7],[8] However, this is only a short-term fix to a long-term problem and further, many simply cannot afford to buy this water.[9]

In order to overcome cost and access barriers, innovative technology has been applied in order to not only cheaply purify but also maintain access to clean water.

Two major breakthroughs in the provision of clean water include Sunspring, a 900-pound, easy to install unit that can purify enough water to serve an entire Haitian village, as well as the LGF Rapid Response 10000UF that purifies enough clean water for 5,000 people a day.[10],[11] Both technologies are solar powered and easily implemented to save lives in emergency situations such as that in Haiti.

To keep tabs on the condition of the water buckets and the families that received them, aid workers use radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags, near-field communication and short message service.[12]

In addition to helping with the water situation, new programs implementing specially programmed phones that can keep track of patients from isolated communities to gather infection data and prevent more deaths.[13]

Measures to prevent such consequences in the event of future natural disasters are the ideal solution to a lot of the chronic infrastructural problems facing Haiti today. In the meantime, innovative technology represents valuable short- and medium-term solutions to urgent problems—starting with purifying the water supply to buffer against the continued spread of cholera.

In the future, I hope to report on “Technology in a Time Without Cholera”, rather than “Technology in the Time of Cholera”.


[1] United Nations. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Haiti: One Year Later.” 18 January 2011. <>. 7 October 2011.

[2] Republique D’Haiti. Ministere de la Santé Publique et de la Population. “Rapports journaliers du MSPP sur l’evolution du cholera en Haiti”. 2010. <>. 7 October 2011.

[3] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Cholera: General Information”. 24 February 2011. <>. 7 October 2011.

[4] Ryan, Edward T. Personal INTERVIEW. 12 October 2011.

[5] UNICEF. OCHA: Haiti. “Humanitarian Bulletin (26 July-18 August 2011).” <>. 7 October 2011.

[6] Farmer, Paul. “Haiti After the Earthquake.” Public Affairs: New York, 2011.

[7] McMahan, Stacey. “Clean Water in the Face of Cholera.” Fierce Reason. <>. 7 October 2011.

[8] Britell, Alexander. “Partners in Health’s Joia Mukherjee on Haiti, Cholera and the ‘Free Man’.” Caribbean Journal. 3 August 2011. <>. 7 October 2011.

[9] Steinlechner, Benjamin. “Improving access to safe water in Haiti.” UNICEF. 1 September 2011. <>. 7 October 2011.

[10] GE Reports. “Tackling Haiti’s Cholera Epidemic with Solar Power.” 8 November 2010. <>. 7 October 2011.

[11] Dickinson, Boonsri. “In Haiti, fighting cholera with a water machine.” Smart Planet. 11 November 2010. <>. 7 October 2011.

[12] Greenemeier, Larry. “Aqua Plan: Could Cell Phones Help Aid Workers Ensure Haiti’s Supply of Clean Drinking Water?” Scientific American. 18 February 2011. <>. 7 October 2011.

[13] Partners in Health. Stand With Haiti. “Combating cholera with cell phones.” 20 September 2011. <>. 7 October 2011.

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