Haiti’s Coming Public Health Challenges

Once you’ve survived the earthquake, what happens? Haitians now face a daunting set of health challenges, including typhoid, dengue fever, malaria, and getting treatment for serious injuries.

While health information coming out of Haiti is still very sparse, data from previous earthquakes gives us a clear impression of what to expect in terms of health. The initial impact of an earthquake is catastrophic injuries – broken bones, crush injuries, dust inhalation, and burns predominate. You can see this in the heartbreaking videos coming out of Port au Prince.

Injuries are made worse by the obstacles to getting treatment – hospitals are just as likely as other buildings to be destroyed in a quake and roads will be impassable. At least one hospital in Haiti has collapsed, and the Times of Zambia is reporting only one functional hospital in the country, a field hospital donated by Argentina. Emergency care is going to be almost impossible to access, and the greatest demand for medical care is in the first 24 hours after an earthquake.

Social unrest often comes after earthquakes. People get angry with the government’s inability to respond, and fear and helplessness turns easily to violence. There are reports of looting in Haiti. That’s going to mean more injuries by violence.

After the injuries comes sickness. If stringent controls are not put in place, the combination of displaced people and damaged infrastructure will lead directly to epidemics of diarrheal disease over the next few months. In the case of Haiti, the risk is typhoid. It’s already present in the country, and it could spread rapidly if people are crowded together drinking contaminated water. We could also see spikes in dengue fever and malaria if people are living in temporary shelters with little protection from mosquitoes.

This is where disaster relief efforts make a huge difference. By the time the international teams get in, it’s too late to help the severely injured. The follow-on sickness, though, can be stopped. If people have access to clean water to drink, a safe way to dispose of waste, and decent housing, these epidemics can be avoided.

Image: flickr