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Haiti Earthquake Disastrous for Already Dire Health Conditions


An earthquake can be disastrous to any country, but for Haiti, where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line and health conditions are among some of the worst in the world, the natural disaster will likely bring unimaginable problems.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and according to USAID, an independent federal government agency that extends assistance to countries recovering from disaster, Haiti has the highest per capita tuberculosis (TB) burden in the Caribbean and Latin American region. Tuberculosis is second only to HIV/AIDS as the country’s greatest infectious cause of mortality. Diarrhea, malaria, and respiratory diseases are also other main causes of death. Haiti also has the highest rates of infant, under-five, and maternal mortality in the Western hemisphere, according to UNICEF.

High rates of disease associated with intestinal worms, such as ascaris, trichuris, and hookworm, also plague Haiti. These worms cause anemia, stunted growth, malnutrition, and impaired physical and cognitive development. The dire state of the water and sanitation infrastructure in Haiti are a main cause of these diseases, which prompted a recent effort to tackle these problems using grants by Spain and the Inter-American Development Bank, according to a news release from the latter in October 2009.

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The campaign had hoped to improve the status of both maternal and child health and survival through sustainable improvement in hygiene behaviors and sanitation projects. Intestinal worm infections are among the most common afflictions of the world’s poorest people, and Haiti fits the bill. The earthquake has put a whole new face and urgency to this project. In fact, with Haiti’s water supply destroyed and with earthquake survivors forced to crowd together with no sanitation system, any existing water could rapidly become contaminated, leading to a spread of water-borne diseases such as cholera and dysentery.

Before the earthquake, Haiti’s few hospitals and clinics were already stretched beyond capacity and provided poor care. Doctors Without Borders (also known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or MSF), which offered free health care at three clinics in Port-au-Prince, the main site of the earthquake, said in a recent CNN article that basic health services in the city were nearly non-existent, the result of mismanagement, shortages of medical personnel and supplies, and strikes. Because the public health system has been in such disarray, patients often have nowhere else to turn but to the free clinics. The free clinics are also the only hope for most Haitians because the majority live in poverty and they cannot afford to pay the fees charged by the private health care sector.

According to the New York Times, Doctors Without Borders found two public hospitals in good condition following the earthquake. It is still uncertain how many other medical facilities are left standing or even if they are safe enough to occupy. Regardless of how many hospital or clinics still exist in Haiti, the truth is that the country’s dire health conditions have gone from bad to unimaginably worse. If there can be one bright spot in this whole situation, that might be that what arises from this earthquake disaster in the future will be a new, effective, and well-managed health care system and facilities that will be capable of addressing the needs of the Haitian people and show them the basics of good nutrition, sanitation, and health care for themselves and their families.

CNNHealth.com, April 13, 2009
Inter-America Development Bank, Oct. 23, 2009
New York Times, Jan. 13, 2010