Quake-hit Refugees Need Urgent Shelter Ahead of Rain to Prevent Health Disaster: Haiti Health Minister

by Thilaka Ravi on  January 31, 2010 at 9:49 PM General Health News
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Haitian Health Minister Alex Larsen said Saturday the government is "moving as fast as possible" to shelter quake-hit refugees ahead of heavy rains due as soon as next month that could trigger a public health disaster.

"There's discussion going on right now on how to deal with this issue quick enough," Larsen told AFP after a briefing by World Health Organization (WHO) officials about the influx of desperately-needed medical supplies.

The UN has warned that if heavy rains arrive -- perhaps as early as mid-February -- while as many as a million Haitians are still homeless it could provoke a public health catastrophe, spreading disease through dense, insanitary makeshift encampments.

The disaster left over 170,000 people dead -- including thousands of bodies still rotting under the mountains of debris, increasing the risk of contamination especially if heavy rains soak through the tangled ruins.

The beleaguered government, struggling to cope after the massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed the capital and surrounding areas, has set up "a commission to deal with this exact problem -- they met this morning," Larsen said, declining to provide further details.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the capital have since the January 12 quake been sheltering in squalid encampments in city parks.

The minister said it was necessary to ensure "better sanitation (in the camps) to prevent the emergence of communicable diseases," saying such a development was "the biggest concern for the government of Haiti."

Haiti's wet season usually starts in May, but storms could come earlier.

Larsen said the government anticipated "a small rain season" ahead of the full season around the time of normally joyous Carnival celebrations in mid-February -- now cancelled due to the cataclysmic quake.

"I believe the biggest problem right now is people sleeping in the street," Larsen said, standing amid crate-loads of medical aid at the PROMESS (Program on Essential Medicines and Supplies) warehouse, Haiti's main medical storage and distribution facility near the international airport.

"We're moving as fast as possible" to deal with this issue, Larsen insisted, after the WHO briefing in which he praised the amount of foreign medical aid arriving in the country from around the world.

Haiti's President Rene Preval urged earlier this week for the foreign donors to send 200,000 tents to house families left homeless before rainfall blights relief plans.

Larsen, lamenting security issues around aid drops as desperate residents scramble for supplies, noted that "food is being distributed, water is being distributed, but in a bit of a disorderly way."

The government needs to "get things organized more systematically, because some get plenty, while others get nothing." He suggested more security from UN troops would help with distribution.

Haitian authorities are also trying to ensure the provisional camps don't become permanent, "because when people get used to being provided services they didn't have before, it's difficult... If people are comfortable where they are, they aren't going to move," Larsen said.

Source: AFP

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