Despite Big Obstacles, Haiti Making Remarkable Progress Eliminating Lymphatic Filariasis

Haiti is not an easy place to fight disease even in the best of times. That was true even before a devastating earthquake ravaged Haiti's capital and largest city, Port-au-Prince, in 2010.

For decades, poverty, government instability and other realities often stood in the way of success. This is why the recent data showing Haiti is protecting its entire population from lymphatic filariasis is a milestone -- a real-life testament to persistence, creativity and collaboration.

Lymphatic filariasis, or elephantiasis, is one of the world's most disabling and costly tropical diseases. Even though we have the tools to eliminate it entirely, it continues to affect more than 120 million people worldwide. Most Haitians are at risk and millions are already infected.

In addition to pain, disability and disfigurement, lymphatic filariasis carries a heavy social cost. Those disfigured by the disease are often shunned. Women are often rejected by their families. Both men and women can have difficulty finding jobs.

To stop spread of the disease, at least 70 percent of the population must receive a dose of two medicines every year for five years.

Over the past several years, a team of public health workers from Haiti's Ministry of Health, CDC and other organizations have provided this treatment throughout Haiti, except in the challenging area of Port-au-Prince.

But now the population of Port-au-Prince is also being successfully treated -- a remarkable feat. The medicines also protect people against intestinal worms, helping kids grow and study better.

In addition to the progress against lymphatic filariasis, CDC has worked with Haitians since the earthquake to:
  • double the number of people being treated for HIV;
  • improve testing and treatment of pregnant women for HIV, reducing the risk of women dying and of infants becoming infected;
  • increase measles and rubella vaccination rates, reducing the risk of a devastating measles outbreak;
  • begin the introduction of new vaccines against microbes that cause pneumonia, meningitis and diarrhea, literally saving tens of thousands of children's lives in the coming years;
  • increase the capacity to recognize and treat cholera and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis; and
  • improve the safety of drinking water.

CDC and our partners have done this by strengthening Haitian systems, personnel and organizations. The progress isn't just impressive, it's also sustainable.

Of course, there's so much more to be done. Water and sanitation still need attention. Childhood and maternal death rates remain too high. But this achievement in the fight against lymphatic filariasis shows progress is indeed possible.

The success of the Haiti experience will help public health officials refine future efforts to combat lymphatic filariasis in other places in the Americas and worldwide.

At CDC we work 24/7 to save lives and protect people. We're committed to continuing to support Haiti meet its public health challenges in the years to come and to eliminating lymphatic filariasis in the Americas by 2016.