A Mass General cholera specialist and the Madison family join forces against cholera and other child-killing diarrheal diseases in Haiti.

MGHfCPut together a Mass General pediatrician dedicated to controlling cholera with a compassionate family moved by the destruction they witnessed in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. The result is funding for a laboratory that will help Haiti save lives from one of its leading child killers, diarrheal diseases, including cholera.

“The cholera epidemic on top of the earthquake and existing poverty was devastating,” MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s Jason Harris, MD, says. “Since the cholera-causing bacteria was introduced into Haiti in 2010, almost a million people got cholera and thousands have died. New cases are slowing, but cholera hasn’t gone away.”

Mass General's Jason Harris, MD, volunteering with Project HOPE after the Haiti earthquake, examines a young cholera patient.
Mass General’s Jason Harris, MD, volunteering with Project HOPE after the Haiti earthquake, examines a young cholera patient.

Named in honor of the generous family, the laboratory opened in St. Marc in May 2014. Now trained Haitian staff with modern equipment can quickly diagnose intestinal infections like cholera that can cause massive loss of fluids through diarrhea and vomiting. Quick diagnosis of cholera means that simple but lifesaving treatments including fluid replacement and antibiotics can start right away.

Aiming to Eradicate Cholera

“Prior to its opening, there was no place in the region that could do a basic stool culture for cholera or other causes of diarrhea,” Dr. Harris says. When the outbreak started, samples were sent for diagnosis to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States.

The lab is located in a Ministry of Health hospital in St. Marc, an epicenter of the cholera epidemic. It was established in partnership with the Haitian government, MassGeneral Hospital for Children and Partners In Health.

The lab is also a base of operations for Dr. Harris’ research aimed at eradicating cholera. He and colleagues reported in March 2015 that a cholera vaccine effectively protects people in Haiti from the disease. “It was controversial whether a vaccine would help in the setting of an epidemic, particularly in a population who had never been exposed to cholera before. We have been able to show that cholera vaccine works and can save lives,” Dr. Harris explains.

A Crucial Gift

Jack (left)  and Beth Madison (middle) went on a service mission to Haiti after the earthquake.
Jack (left) and Beth Madison (middle) went on a service mission to Haiti after the earthquake.

His team showed that vaccination can play a major role in controlling the disease, alongside other efforts like improved hygiene and sanitation. “We can now diagnose cholera locally and take care of children better,” Dr. Harris says, “but we still need a comprehensive strategy to get rid of it.”

Dr. Harris was able to leverage the Madisons’ support to get a $2.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to expand his cholera vaccine research. “I’m 100 percent sure that we couldn’t have done this without their gift,” Dr. Harris says, pointing out that NIH funds research, but doesn’t fund new facilities like a laboratory.

Ten months after the earthquake in October 2010, Beth Madison, her then 12-year-old son, Jack, and the Rev. John Unni, their dear friend, embarked on a service mission to Haiti. They visited orphanages and hospitals, where they fed, bathed, sang and read to children, and helped dig out rubble so rebuilding could begin.

“We were blown away by the sheer magnitude of destruction and chaos that was their reality,” Beth says. “It was life-changing and we learned a lot about gratitude.

Jumping Right In

She was particularly proud of Jack. “Were his eyes opened!” she recalls. “But he jumped right in, whether it was to hold someone’s hand in the hospital or to play soccer with other kids in the parking lot.”

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At the laboratory, trained Haitian staff with modern equipment can quickly diagnose intestinal infections like cholera.

Beth and her husband, Chris, are longtime supporters of Mass General. A member of the MassGeneral Hospital for Children’s Storybook Ball Committee for 14 years, Beth twice chaired this major hospital fundraiser. The Madisons moved halfway around the world to Australia last year. But she says they’re still “immensely grateful” for the outstanding care they received at the hospital in the 18 years they lived in Boston.

With three boys—besides Jack, there’s Tommy and Jamie —“We’ve spent our fair share of time in Mass General’s Emergency Department with concussions or getting stitches,” Beth recalls.

Lives Forever Changed

One of her family’s mantras is “To whom much is given, much is expected.” As she explains, “If beautiful children in Haiti can get the care and treatment needed to save their lives, then we felt passionately that we should get involved.”

The trip to Haiti, she says, “was like throwing a rock in the pond and causing a ripple effect.” Their lives will never be the same. Nor will the lives of Haitian children with diarrheal ailments who can now be quickly diagnosed and treated.

To learn more about how you can help advance research to better treat and control cholera and other diarrheal diseases, please contact us.