Saturday 10 December 2016

The rainy season brings spectre of epidemic to Haiti

Doctors say immunisation campaign is vital

Tom Phillips in PORT-AU-PRINCE

Published 31/01/2010 | 05:00

DEVASTATION: A woman walks near a fire engulfing stores in
a market area in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Marco Dormino
DEVASTATION: A woman walks near a fire engulfing stores in a market area in Port-au-Prince. Photo: Marco Dormino

AID agencies are warning of an imminent health crisis in Haiti as the onset of the rainy season brings fears of an outbreak of waterborne diseases in Port-au-Prince's squalid refugee camps.

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With up to a million Haitians thought to have lost their homes in the earthquake and hundreds of thousands still living in 600 squatter settlements around the capital, aid officials warn that the arrival of rain could present them with a further medical crisis after hospitals were initially swamped with patients needing amputations or treatment for crushing injuries.

Haiti's rains normally come in February and the prospect of bad weather has aid workers and homeless people scared.

"If it rains, there will be a great deal of disease," said Dr Thierry Causse, a GP from the French Red Cross who is working at a field clinic near the Place St Pierre refugee camp in Petionville, where hundreds of people are squatting and rivers of urine flow through the square.

"We are afraid of a typhoid epidemic, of a malaria epidemic. We have a lot of doctors here but if there is an epidemic there will be a big problem. There could be a lot of dead people if it is not treated quickly and properly."

One of the largest refugee camps is in the city's crumbling football stadium, the Stade Sylvio Cator. On the pitch, thousands of the homeless have made shelters from tarpaulin, corrugated iron and rubble. One family is living inside the cramped team dugout where Brazilian football stars such as Ronaldo and Kaka once sat.

"Where I lived it is all gone," said Benita Saint-Cyr, 37, one of three women living in the dugout with dozens of children. "I'm not dead, so all I can do now is pray."

Thervius Luckner, a community leader in the Place St Pierre camp, is also among the city's displaced population. "It always rains in February," he said. "I think it is only because of God that it hasn't rained so far. If it rains, people will be in trouble, the tents are not safe and some people don't even have tents. I got a message from a Haitian doctor to tell the people not to piss and shit in the camp because the kids will get sick." The UN and the Haitian government say they are planning to move many of Port-au-Prince's homeless to camps outside the city, but in Place St Pierre such promises have yet to materialise.

"We had an announcement from the mayor saying they were building houses for people whose homes were destroyed," Mr Luckner said, picking his way through a mesh of ropes supporting hundreds of tents. "They took people's names, but we haven't heard anything yet."

Around Mr Luckner's makeshift shelter live some of the people most at risk: young mothers and their children who spend the days playing in the filthy square.

"The doctors haven't come yet," said Yolene Philemond, 22, mother of a one-year-old son. "We hope they are coming." She pointed to a severe rash on the arms of her baby. "He's infected. His body is cracked. I don't know what it is," said the mother, whose house in Port-au-Prince was levelled by the quake, killing one of her cousins.

"When there is a population displacement and lack of water and sanitation facilities there is always a risk of diarrhoeal diseases including cholera," said Roshan Khadivi of Unicef.

On Friday, Unicef announced a "major immunisation campaign", beginning on Tuesday, for the city's children, after reports of measles among the young.

But aid agencies fear that unless these refugees are properly and rapidly re-housed outside the city, waterborne diseases could easily proliferate in the squatter settlements.

Bo Viktor Nylund, Unicef's senior child protection officer, said action was needed to move Port-au-Prince's homeless to more appropriate camps. "These temporary sites cannot go on for long," he said. "Taking care of the children is now an emergency."

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