PAHO: Haiti Relief Efforts Continue to Face Major Obstacles

A clearer picture of health challenges has emerged, but aid efforts are still not satisfactory

Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2009 (PAHO) - Six days after the earthquake in Haiti, relief efforts are overcoming some initial communication and logistics problems, but "we are not satisfied with our ability to get health services to those who urgently need them," said the Deputy Director of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), Dr. Jon Andrus. "We are aiming for an A+, but we are not there."

"On the ground, communication and transportation remain incredibly difficult," said Dr. Andrus. "Scarcities of the bare necessities, such as food, water, and fuel, are everywhere. Rubble and dead bodies clog the streets....These conditions are imposing enormous difficulties in managing the supply and distribution of the massive amounts of aid that generous people and organizations are pouring into the country."

A clearer picture of the quake's health impact and of survivors' current health needs is emerging, said Dr. Andrus. Assessment teams coordinated by PAHO/WHO are visiting hospitals and healthcare facilities to determine where essential health services are still available and what is needed to restore them elsewhere.

As head of the United Nations' inter-agency coordinating mechanism known as the Global Health Cluster, PAHO/WHO is also gathering and disseminating information on the arrival of field hospitals and other mobile health services that are part of the massive international relief effort.

PAHO/WHO's SUMA system, which helps coordinate the distribution of humanitarian supplies, has been set up at the Port-au-Prince airport.

Details about the health situation include:

  • The earthquake destroyed or damaged at least eight hospitals and healthcare facilities in and around Port-au-Prince.
  • Still-operating hospitals have been quickly overwhelmed by large numbers of survivors needing care, particularly for trauma injuries.
  • Many of these facilities are operating with the help of nongovernmental organizations, sometimes with two or more NGOs working in the same facility.
  • Field hospitals are beginning to function as well. France, Indonesia, Israel, Russia, Turkey, the United States and Médecins Sans Frontières ("Doctors without Borders") are among the countries or agencies that have set up or are deploying field hospitals. The U.S. naval ship USNS Comfort, with a 1,000-bed capacity, is on its way to Haiti.
  • Patients are also being treated for injuries or other health problems at various health centers along Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic, while some injured are being evacuated to Santo Domingo or to other countries, including Jamaica.
  • To date, epidemiological reports indicate that there is no increase in reportable diseases, either within Haiti or along the border of Haiti and the Dominican Republic.

PAHO/WHO's Emergency Operations Center learned today that Haiti's Ministry of Public Health is asking for international cooperation to implement a three-pronged strategy for meeting health needs. The strategy would reduce pressure on overcrowded hospitals by providing more health services at the community level. It proposes three levels of healthcare services:

1. Mobile units that can take health services to places where quake survivors are congregating

2. Fixed health posts that can provide primary healthcare services and minor surgery, including uncomplicated deliveries

3. Hospitals, including field hospitals, that can provide surgical care.

An important challenge is to provide follow-up care for discharged surgical patients. As part of its strategy, Haiti's Ministry of Public Health wants to ensure that post-surgical care is available in the general vicinity of all permanent and field hospitals that are carrying out surgeries.

During his press briefing, Dr. Andrus acknowledged reports of bodies being buried in mass graves, which he said should always be avoided after any disaster.

"I want to reiterate that there is no risk of a communicable disease outbreak or any other public health threat associated with the presence of dead bodies.... It is important to respect the rights of families to know the fates of their lost loved ones. Reports of dumping bodies into mass graves are disheartening. PAHO/WHO is making every effort to prevent such misguided efforts."

PAHO/WHO's headquarters in Haiti's capital were partially destroyed by the quake. The 52-person staff normally assigned to Haiti has been augmented by a team of 20 international experts deployed from other countries in the Americas and elsewhere. They are now working out of a medical warehouse near the airport in Port-au-Prince, a new field office in Jimaní along the border with the Dominican Republic, and from the PAHO/WHO country office in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic.

PAHO was established in 1902 and is the world's oldest public health organization. It works with all the countries of the Americas to improve the health and quality of life of the people of the Americas and serves as the Regional Office for the Americas of the World Health Organization (WHO).