Limited Clean Water Supplies Pose Unfamiliar Health Risks in Puerto Rico
As Project HOPE medical volunteers continue to bring needed care to people living in still hard to reach locations, a newly implemented WASH program is helping to ensure long-term health for Puerto Ricans learning how to live in a changed environment after the massive storm.
WASH for Health
Two months after Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Ricans are still living without easy access to potable water and electricity. As Project HOPE medical volunteers continue to bring needed care to people living in still hard to reach locations, a newly implemented WASH program is helping to ensure long-term health for Puerto Ricans learning how to live in a changed environment after the massive storm.
A water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) education team is now working alongside HOPE’s mobile medical unit team to help Puerto Ricans stay healthy by offering convenient education opportunities on treating drinking water, the importance of continuing to follow healthy hygiene habits, and preventing vector-borne diseases that are on the rise after Hurricane Maria.
“The incorporation of the WASH program into to the mobile medical units is ideal,” said Daniel Halpert, Project HOPE’s WASH expert in Puerto Rico. “People can seek medical care, visit our pharmacist for needed medicines but also learn how to make sure their water is safe to drink, learn the importance of continuing great hygiene habits, and reduce the risk of vector borne illnesses – all in one place.”
Halpert, who has coordinated WASH programs for the Peace Corps in Panama, said tailoring WASH programs to specific needs after disasters is very important.
“In Puerto Rico, most people already know the importance of accessing clean water and using preventative hygiene habits like handwashing, but because of the hurricane, they have lost all of their infrastructure, especially the access to clean water,” he explained. “All of a sudden, they can’t turn on the faucet and have potable water coming out of the tap.”
“Living with limited amounts of clean water is now forcing people to face unfamiliar decisions like, ‘Do I really need to use my scarce amount of water to wash my hands before cooking?’ But forgoing those important habits can lead to larger and devastating health issues.”
Without easy access to unlimited clean water, people are also dealing with other challenges, including proper water storage and how to use chlorination and purifying kits properly.
“Many people have been given water purification kits and chlorine tablets, but without experience using these treatments, many are not certain on what the proper usage is,” said Halpert. “Project HOPE is providing handouts that let people know how to properly purify a bucket of water, or even a milk jug of water, so that everyone can feel confident and safe in the water they are drinking and using.”
Flood damaged homes and piles of decaying vegetation after Hurricane Maria are also contributing to the increase of fly and rodent populations. “Rodents and flies have dramatically increased near and in people’s homes,” said Halpert. “Now anytime people put food out, it attracts rodents and flies that can greatly increase the risk of vector borne illnesses. Part of our WASH training is teaching people how to make home-made fly and rat traps with materials they have in their own home to help combat this problem.”
Hundreds of people have attended the WASH education workshops since they were added to the mobile medical units last week. “There is a real interest for this type of knowledge. People know they need help,” said Halpert. “Community members are very engaged in our trainings, and despite having already seen our medical staff and receiving their medications, they are eager to stay and listen to the hygiene promotion for 30 plus minutes, often lingering even after the training is over to ask follow-up questions and talk about their experiences since the storm. Many people also take flyers home to hand out to their neighbors.”
One participant, an older woman who is dealing with a fly and rodent issue for the first time in her life, was especially interested in learning how to make the homemade traps Halpert said.
Children are also getting in on the education.
“You have to start training young. If we can help kids adopt good hygiene habits, they carry these behaviors with them for the rest of their lives.”
“We’re targeting a number of behaviors that all children must learn – handwashing, dental hygiene and trash management. Inviting parents to accompany their kids in these workshops is also great reinforcement for the adults.”
The Project HOPE team is working with volunteers and students from the University of Puerto Rico’s Graduate School of Public Health in Rio Piedras to grow the WASH education programs. In addition to the education courses being offered after each medical clinic, the WASH program is also providing participants with hygiene kits filled with soaps, towelettes, toothbrushes, and toothpaste, among other items. Project HOPE recently received a pallet of chlorine tablets through the Puerto Rico Department of Health, which will be distributed through the WASH program.
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