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Sanitation crisis adds to Haiti's woes

January 30, 2010 |  5:00 pm

Haiti_camp Relief officials are scrambling to confront a sanitation crisis that could spread malaria, cholera and other deadly diseases throughout the chaotic camps packed with hundreds of thousands of Haitian earthquake survivors.

Shortages of food, clean water, adequate shelter and latrines are creating a potential spawning ground for epidemics in a country with an estimated 1 million people made homeless by the Jan. 12 quake.

On Saturday, a single portable toilet served about 2,000 people in a sprawling camp across the street from the collapsed National Palace, forcing most to use a gutter that runs next to an area where vendors cook food and mothers struggle to bathe their children.

"We wash the vegetables first from water brought in by trucks, but a lot of times the water isn't clean," said Marie Marthe, 45, cooking a large pot of collard greens, carrots and goat as flies gathered on her daughter's diaper. "We don't have any choice."

Survivors have erected flimsy shelters of cloth, cardboard or plastic in nearly every open space left in the capital.

Women wait until night to bathe out of buckets, shielding their bodies behind damaged cars and trucks. Water is recycled — used first for brushing teeth, then for washing food, then for bathing.

"My 1-year-old has had diarrhea for a week now, probably because of the water," said Bernadel Perkington, 40. "When the earthquake happened I had 500 gourdes [about 15 U.S. dollars], which I was using for clean water for her. The money for that ran out yesterday."

The crowding and puddles of filthy water that breed mosquitoes have begun to spread diseases such as dengue and malaria, which were already endemic in Haiti. Some hospitals report that half the children they treat have malaria, though the rainy season — the peak time for mosquitoes — won't start until April.

Tight quarters also expose people to cholera, dysentery, tetanus and other diseases.

Dr. Louise Ivers, Haiti clinical director for Partners in Health, said she fears "a mass outbreak of measles, which would really be potentially devastating for a camp where there are 10,000 people living." Her organization has operated in Haiti for more than two decades and has about 4,000 medical workers in the country.

The U.N. has started to dig latrines for 20,000 people, said Silvia Gaya, UNICEF's coordinator for water and sanitation, even if that's a small fraction of the 700,000 people that officials said were living in the camps last week.

"In some parks, there is no physical space" even to dig latrines, Gaya said.

Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, said nearly three dozen organizations were joining the U.N.-led effort to build latrines and handle solid waste disposal.

Authorities also plan to build more permanent resettlement camps with plumbing and sewage, while PAHO is working with Haiti's government to chlorinate water in collapsible tanks.

Efforts to treat the injured suffered a setback, however, as the U.S. military said it had halted flights carrying earthquake victims to the United States for emergency medical care, apparently due to a dispute between the states and federal government over who will pay.

"We can't fly anyone without an accepting hospital on the other end," said Capt. Kevin Aandahl, spokesman for U.S. Transportation Command.

A Miami doctor involved in the relief effort said the U.S. government was endangering the lives of scores of critically injured Haitians.

"We have 100 critically ill patients who will die in the next day or two if we don't Medevac them," said Dr. Barth Green, chairman of the University of Miami's Global Institute for Community Health and Development.

On a cot at a temporary field hospital at Haiti's international airport, 5-year-old Betina Joseph lay in a slate blue party dress, trying with waning energy to shoo a fly buzzing around her face.

Doctors said Saturday tetanus had developed in a small leg wound suffered in the quake.

"If we can't save her by getting her out right away, we won't save her," said Dr. David Pitcher, one of 34 surgeons staffing the University of Miami-run field hospital. Pitcher said two men had just died of tetanus at the hospital, which performs as many as 40 surgeries a day.

Joseph's mother, Denise Exima, 28, caressed her daughter's corn rolls, apparently unaware that getting her out could mean life or death.

Green told The Associated Press that not even the U.S. Navy hospital ship Comfort, anchored off Port-au-Prince, can provide the respirator care — three to four weeks of it — that would enable Joseph to survive.

The coordinator of humanitarian assistance with the U.S.-run Joint Task Force-Haiti, Canadian Brig. Gen. Nicolas Matern, confirmed that the evacuation flights were halted on Wednesday.

The hospital ship Comfort is so crammed with patients that U.S. military officials are trying to organize a location on land where they can recover.

Food distribution was becoming more organized. The World Food Program on Saturday began handing out coupons that women — and women only — can turn in for food at 16 sites in the capital starting Sunday.

The coupons entitle each family to 55 pounds of rice. The idea is to ensure a dependable supply for families and prevent young men from forcing their way to the front or stealing food from weaker people in line, a common occurrence after the quake.

U.N. officials say they are still far short of reaching all 2 million quake victims estimated to need food aid.

--Associated Press

Photo: A woman washes at a makeshift camp in Port-au-Prince. Credit: Rodrigo Abd / Associated Press.

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