Scramble to avert health calamity in Haiti

2010-01-30 11:25

HAITI’S desperate earthquake survivors faced a new deadly threat on

Friday as the United Nations reported a rise in cases of diarrhoea, measles and

tetanus in squalid tent camps for victims.

A vast foreign aid effort is struggling to meet survivors’ needs 17

days after the disaster, which killed around 170 000 people and left one million

homeless and short of food, water and medical attention.

And with medicine running low amid efforts to treat hundreds of

thousands of injured and homeless cramped into makeshift camps, officials and

aid groups are scrambling to avoid a potential public health calamity that could

push the death toll higher.

“Several medical teams report a growing caseload of diarrhoea in

the last two to three days,” World Health Organization spokesman Paul Garwood


“There are also reports of measles and tetanus, including in

resettlement camps, which is worrisome due to the high concentration of people,”

he told journalists in Geneva.

UN agencies and Haiti’s government aim to launch a vaccination

campaign against measles, tetanus and diphtheria next week. Just 58% of Haitian

infants were immunized before the quake, Garwood said.

He highlighted a “critical” need for surgeons, with an estimated 30

to 100 amputations being carried out every day in some hospitals, while supplies

of anaesthesia and antibiotics were also needed.

The 7.0-magnitude quake on January 12 decimated Haiti’s already

meagre health system, creating conditions for disease to thrive in cramped

refugee camps.

Only one person in two among the Haitian population of more than

nine million people has access to clean drinking water, and only 19% have decent


On Friday, Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa became just the

second foreign leader to visit Haiti since the quake, lending his voice to

international calls for more emergency relief and assistance with


“This is a tragedy, a humanitarian tragedy. Haiti at this moment

represents the pain of victims but also hope,” Correa said.

Haitians living in sprawling makeshift camps in the ruins of

Port-au-Prince and elsewhere, complain that the flood of international aid

arriving in the country is trickling down too slowly.

Many are trying to rebuild their lives, with marketplaces springing

up on streets around the capital, although business is tough.

“It’s very hard – there aren’t many buyers, but there are lots of

sellers,” said 24-year-old Rose Gardy-Joseph, sitting next to a basket full of

colourful sweets, soft cheese and napkins.

But survivors also face rising insecurity, with thousands of

criminals on the loose after the main jail collapsed in the quake and reports of

rape and violence plaguing the weak and vulnerable.

The deputy head of the UN mission in Haiti, Anthony Banbury, said

the UN did not want huge tent cities later turning into slums where there was

poor sanitation, no security and child abuse.

The UN, along with aid agencies and security forces, must “do

things smart, as well as fast, and that’s a big challenge for us now,” Banbury


The US State Department said it was spearheading a coordinated

effort together with UNICEF, the Haitian government, the Red Cross and other

agencies to combat the potential trafficking of children.

The aid effort has also been dogged by complaints over a lack of

coordination between UN officials, the 20 000 US forces in Haiti, and a swarm of

aid groups helping the country.

There were no signs of further survivors beneath the rubble after a

16-year-old girl was pulled alive from the ruins on Wednesday after surviving 15

days without any food or water.

Rebuilding the western hemisphere’s poorest nation could take

decades, said Edmond Mulet, the acting head of the UN mission in Haiti, whose

predecessor was killed in the quake.

“I think this is going to take many more decades than only 10 years

and this is an enormous backwards step in Haiti’s development. We will not have

to start from zero but from below zero,” Mulet told the BBC.

But anti-government feeling runs high on the streets, with

residents distrustful of Haitian president Rene Preval’s intentions with the

relief flooding in from around the world.

“The government is going to take all the aid and give it to their

friends, not to the people,” said money changer Sorel Charles

“The rich people are getting richer, but we aren’t getting


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