Poor Hygiene, Lack of Water Heightens Haiti Misery

by Thilaka Ravi on  January 21, 2010 at 2:35 PM General Health News
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The stench at Place Saint-Pierre, perceptible from 100 meters away, overpowers the senses inside the makeshift camp where thousands of Haitians live in appalling conditions.

Amid the teaming hordes of quake survivors, women bathed next to mounds of refuse and children relieved themselves on the bare earth. One tank supplied water for 6,000 people desperately needing to bathe, wash clothes and cook.

Some take their chances and drink the unsanitized water to quench their thirst in the burning tropical son, despite the risk of violent illness. Many pay the consequences.

"Sometimes we drink the water, even though we know that water's not for drinking," said Magalta Saint-Fleur, 30.

"If we don't have money (to buy purified water) there's nothing else we can do," she said. Nearby, her seven-year-old niece Fonsiane crouches, doubled-over and suffering from intestinal pain.

In the immediate aftermath of last week's quake, clearing out rotting bodies, removing mountains of rubble and debris, reuniting broken families and tending to the injured have topped the concerns of aid and relief workers.

The focus on providing immediate medical care to quake victims, along with rescue and recovery operations, has meant that hygiene matters have had to take a backseat.

But this lack of clean water and clean facilities is threatening to compound the misery in Haiti and the battle to ward off infectious disease is rising to the top of the priority list of those trying to help the quake-ravaged country.

There are only six toilets at Place Saint-Pierre and the authorities simply don't have the means to provide more, explained local official Saintizaire Rochemond. "It just simply never happens," he said.

Last Tuesday's devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake killed as many as 200,000 people and left one million homeless, meaning that squalid camps like the on at Place Saint-Pierre will be home to thousands for a long time ahead.

In Haiti's intense heat, everyone is thirsty and clamoring for water, which is in short supply because the country's water pipes were damaged by the quake and other reserves are contaminated by corpses.

The lucky few sometimes get their hands on the little packets of potable water being distributed by aid workers outside the camp.

Clean facilities are also in short supply and people are left to relieve themselves wherever and whenever they feel the need.

"Everywhere you go, there is feces and that's very dangerous," said Rita Aristide, a nurse at a first aid station run by the Haitian Red Cross.

"A lot of people are experiencing intestinal problems and there's vomiting all over the place," she said, complaining that severe diarrhea was raging through the camp.

Arsitide warned that in such conditions a health crisis could develop very quickly and feared widespread gastro bugs as well as cholera and mosquito-borne diseases.

A disease epidemic would be catastrophic for doctors in Haiti, already taxed to their limits by the legions of untreated traumatic injuries and other medical priorities.

One woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy, appears ready to give birth, but her husband is unable to find a doctor to attend to her.

Meanwhile a six year old girl Jerica, has wounds on her face, knees and leg which are becoming infected with pus as flies swarm around the festering injuries.

"We couldn't go to the hospital, we had no money to pay for transportation to get here there," said the child's mother, Marie-Rosette Charles, hovering over the prostrate girl.

Health workers with the Red Cross say they feel defeated and dejected, having received scarcely any international aid.

"There are a lot of people here with open wounds, but there simply isn't any room for them in the hospital," said Aristide.

Many patients are even reluctant to go to the hospital, fearing that another quake or aftershock could send the building tumbling down, the nurse added.

Source: AFP

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