PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Within a dense cluster of flimsy shacks made mostly of plastic tarp and wooden planks, a young mother cradles her sick, whimpering toddler while trying to guard against a fierce tropical sun.
Delimene Saint Lise says she’s doing her best to comfort her 2-year-old daughter and control her spiking fever during what has quickly become a familiar agony in their makeshift community of shanties by a trash-clogged canal in the Haitian capital.
“For the last three days, her body gets very hot and she’s hurting all over,” Saint Lise said as she sat on a mattress inside their sweltering home with flapping plastic walls in the capital’s dusty Delmas section. “I know because I had this awful illness before her.”
This latest scourge in Haiti is chikungunya. It’s a rarely fatal but intensely painful mosquito-borne virus that has spread rapidly through the Caribbean and parts of Latin America after local transmission first started in tiny French St. Martin late last year, likely brought in by an infected air traveler.
Haiti is proving to be particularly vulnerable because so many people live like Saint Lise and her neighbors, packed together in rickety housing with dismal sanitation and surrounded by ideal breeding grounds for the mosquitoes that carry the illness.
“Chikungunya has been merciless in Haiti. Lack of basic infrastructure, poor mosquito control measures, and deep social and economic disparities hampered prevention and treatment efforts,” says a new report on Haiti’s epidemic by the Igarape Institute, a Brazil-based think tank.
Since the virus was first documented in Haiti in May, there have been nearly 40,000 suspected cases seen by health workers, the Pan American Health Organization says. The only places with higher numbers are the neighboring Dominican Republic and Guadaloupe.
But there are many signs that the actual number is far higher in Haiti, a country of 10 million people that struggles with many burdens, from crushing poverty, lack of access to clean water and the fact that some 146,000 people displaced by the January 2010 earthquake still live in makeshift homes.