The recent major earthquake in the capital city of Port-au-Prince, Haiti on Jan 12 2010 has been a catastrophic and life-altering event for those living there. The death toll climbed this week to an estimated 200,000 people. For world leaders (and regular citizens), viewing the news reporting and photos from afar, the downtown area resembles a post-nuclear landscape. Thankfully, many millions of people worldwide have donated monies toward the relief effort currently gearing up for their aid.
Watching the grim news from this poor Caribbean country unfold, it seems unfortunately predictable as a sober demonstration of what happens when a government does (next to) nothing for a few days after a major catastrophe. “No one” was in charge of managing the after-effects of this disaster. Bodies piled up in the streets, people trapped under rubble – and whom might have lived had they been pulled away from the buildings which collapsed around them – were not rescued, roads are not cleared, the government was not visible. The infrastructure failed.
Injured people waited in pain and fear for help which only began to arrive on Friday, Jan 15th. Those folks lucky enough to walk out of fallen buildings with non life-threatening injuries – an estimated 1.1 million people survived the Jan 12th quake in Port-Au-Prince – are now homeless. Growing civil unrest is gaining hold.
This is the second wave of their public health emergency.
The public health infrastructure in Haiti was thin to begin with, but now with the city’s port severely damaged, roads blocked by fallen debris, scant fuel supplies, no functional communication networks and a lack of coordination among international aid agencies, newly-arrived emergency health personnel* and security forces ready to distribute aid are hard-pressed to get it quickly to those most in need.
An NPR reporter on the ground on Sunday Jan 17 was quoted as saying: “Money means little here right now. People are dying from exposure, lack of drinking water and from injuries which are now infected… the stench of death and raw sewage is everywhere“. Age-old scourges – communicable diseases (measles, meningitis, tetanus or malaria), secondary infections (such as gangrene) from untreated traumatic injuries, dehydration, psychological shock, lack of food or medicine and rising criminal activities by a few – will be working against those survivors who have been literally camped out, sleeping on the ground for six nights. Click here to read an article dated Jan 17 2010 about a field hospital in Port-au-Prince, where Sanjay Gupta, physician and medical correspondent for CNN, stayed to treat patients after Belgian health personnel left due to security threats.
In most places, the infrastructure works (until it does not). So much about public health is essential yet unglamorous, addressing basic human needs: adequate and safe food, clean water, shelter from the elements, a means of earning a living, sewage and waste management, knowledge of basic healthcare practices, and the means to implement them, a chance for an education, safety from danger or interpersonal violence, peace of mind if possible.
There will be little of that (peace of mind, that is) on the island of Haiti in the near-term, but as one of of the many Haitian politicians interviewed on a news programs stated last week: “Maybe now we can rebuild a new Haiti”.
That would be a great public health opportunity for the citizens of this devastated country.
* One charitable international volunteer agency, Medicins sans Frontiere, filed this report on Jan 19 2010 regarding the work of their medical staff(s) in Port-au-Prince.
** Link here to an assortment of non-profit international agencies coordinating aid to the population in Haiti, collected by Google.
Addendum #1: On the morning of Jan 20 2010, a second earthquake of 6.1 magnitude struck near Port-au-Prince. Read a brief report about this new quake from the U.S. Geological Survey.
Addendum #2: On Thurs Jan 21, this entry was added: Dr. Robert Fuller, director of Emergency Medicine at UCHC, is currently in Haiti as a volunteer physician for International Medical Corps. Dr. Fuller spoke with with CNN reporter Wolf Blitzen on Jan 19 2010 about the medical rescue efforts in Port au Prince (link here for video).