Saturday, January 16, 2010

Haiti in the wake of disaster

"Tuesday's earthquake could decimate what fragile medical care exists" in Haiti "and spawn a 'perfect storm' in a country already struggling to fight rare tropical and infectious diseases, health experts" warn. The Red Cross has estimated that "3 million people -- one-third of Haiti's population -- were affected by the quake", which was measured at a magnitude of 7.0 and "ripped apart buildings, shearing huge slabs of concrete off structures in the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere" (Park). The homeless are "clustering in public places without food, clean water or sanitation. It's the perfect environment for the spread of communicable disease." Photo by Pinheiro.

The earthquake has thwarted medical efforts in a place that already struggles to stave off infectious diseases. "Even before the earthquake, the country has been the subject of intense public health efforts, as nearly half the causes of deaths have been attributed to HIV/AIDS, respiratory infections, meningitis and diarrheal diseases, according to the World Health Organization." "Hundreds of thousands of people are sleeping in tents, or filling public squares waiting for some kind of help. There is no water, food or sanitation. Many of the survivors have broken arms and legs" (Kenny). "The earthquake decimated Haiti's capital just days ago[, but] it's an eternity in terms of getting medical care to the injured" (Pearson). Now, "if left untreated, minor injuries or fractures can become life-threatening because they're left open to bacterial infections such as tetanus".

Even the uninjured face severe medical risks.

"The disaster cut power, electricity and other utilities." Without clean drinking water, endemic diseases are hard to resist. "What you have is the perfect storm of infection. What you have is a breakdown. It is already a fragile infrastructure with high rates of infectious and neglected tropical disease. Now there are potential breakdowns in sanitation, clean water, housing and subsequent crowding. That's a terrible mix," says Dr Peter Hotez, head of the department of microbiology at George Washington University. "The potential new mass of displaced persons could create crowded, unsanitary conditions that facilitate the spread of contagious respiratory infections."

Cholera, typhoid fever, and other diarrheal diseases threaten the people. "Bacterial and mosquito-borne diseases such as dengue and malaria" are also major risk factors to the injured and uninjured alike.

Dirty water, broken drainage, and a tattered terrain create natural reservoirs where disease can breed. Malaria, an infectious disease that kills approximate one million people each year and is carried by mosquitoes, is expected to intensify in the aftermath of the quake. Malaria is already endemic in this region, and in the midst of this chaos, it will be difficult to avoid.

Doctors "worry that the major, long-term health initiatives to treat preventable diseases" like malaria and dengue "could be upended" by this disaster. "Any interruptions in fighting these preventable diseases has disastrous consequences", claims Hotez. "This is going to a big setback for public health control measures, and you will see the impact of this earthquake at least for months and possibly for years." Kaplan, who formed the Cap Haitien Health Network to tackle preventable diseases such as diarrhea, malaria and malnutrition agrees, "That's another tragedy of the earthquake."

"When the rubble is cleared and the bodies are buried," Haiti will still face the threat of devastating disease as it always has. But by that time, medical supplies and money will be expended on the newly injured, clinics and hospitals will need to rebuild, and the landscape will need to be reshaped in order to prevent water buildup, which fuels the spread of infectious diseases.

Despite it all, Kaplan has hope. He hopes that "this situation may lead to improvements, because it's bringing lots of attention and help to the area." "There's that silver lining," he said.

Want to help the relief & malaria prevention effort in Haiti? Support the Red Cross.
Send a $10 Donation by Texting 'Haiti' to 90999
You may also call 1-800-REDCROSS to make a donation over the phone.

Please DO NOT send donations for Haiti relief efforts to Infectious Bite. Donations to support the Infectious Bite malaria awareness campaign are always welcome.

Kenny, Sean. Common Dreams. "Haiti's earthquake survivors face massive risk."
Park, Madison. "Haiti's earthquake could trigger 'Perfect Storm'." 13 January 2010.
Pearson, Carol. VOA News. "In Haiti, Wounds, Infectious Diseases are top concern." 15 January 2010.
Pinheiro, Roosewelt. AgĂȘncia Brasil. [PHOTO]

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