Protecting Haiti’s Displaced from the Threat of Disease

A little boy climbs into the plastic chair, his eyes darting back and forth, trying to take it all in. The lines of people. The bottles lining the shelves. His attention is pulled in so many directions that he doesn’t even notice when a wet cotton swab glazes his arm.

But he does notice what comes next.

A look of shock followed by a whimper and then a wail. A nurse smooths a band-aid over the spot and his mother dries his eyes before whisking him away. Another child almost immediately fills the same chair, just as wide-eyed and perfectly clueless as the one before him.

It’s Vaccination Day at International Medical Corps’ clinic in Petionville Club Camp, which fills the grounds of what was once a luxury country club for Haiti’s most affluent. Now, it is the largest displacement camp in post-earthquake Haiti, with roughly 40,000 people sandwiched together under tarps and tents. The clinic is open Monday through Friday and has provided primary health care services, including vaccinations, to people living in the camp and the surrounding areas since the first weeks after the devastating 7.0-earthquake that leveled much of southern Haiti on January 12.

“We are here every day for the people,” says Dr. Linda Rimpel, International Medical Corps primary health care coordinator for Port-au-Prince.

The Petionville Club clinic is one of 13 that International Medical Corps runs in the country. The fact that these clinics are open and accessible to tens of thousands of earthquake-affected people has contributed to what has been one of the greatest successes – and reliefs – of the emergency response in Haiti.

There has been no outbreak of disease.

“Making sure that high-risk populations, like the internally displaced, have access to care is one of the best preventative measures we can take against the spread of communicable disease,” says Dr. Jojo Cangao, International Medical Corps Medical Director for Haiti.

Before the earthquake, it is estimated that only 47-percent of people had access to health services, largely due to financial or geographical barriers. In the aftermath of the earthquake, International Medical Corps’ clinics removed both of those barriers for tens of thousands who either lost their homes or never before had easy access to care. For remote fishing villages west of Petit Goave, International Medical Corps is even using a boat to reach the rural population each week so that primary health needs are met.

After years of having to either canoe or walk hours through the mountains to reach the nearest clinic, the residents of Platon, one of the fishing villages serviced by International Medical Corps’ boat clinic, have never had health care services available at their doorstep. “What International Medical Corps is doing is something wonderful,” says Gabriel, a resident of Platon. “We had so many problems before the earthquake. We had nothing in terms of healthcare. And then International Medical Corps came.”

International Medical Corps’ clinics, even the one in Platon, also monitor disease as part of the national surveillance system. Urinary tract infections, diarrhea, respiratory infections, and skin diseases are among the most common issues seen at the clinics, largely because of the conditions people are living in.

Every week, each clinic, as well as other health care providers in Haiti, submits a disease surveillance report to the Ministry of Health, which then compiles the data and can send out a warning if spikes start to emerge.

“The disease surveillance system is something that international NGOs and the government are coordinating exceptionally well on,” says Charles Lor, International Medical Corps Epidemiologist and Monitoring and Evaluation Advisor in Haiti.

If there is an outbreak, International Medical Corps is part of the United Nations response team that will deploy to the area in need. A few months ago, the team did respond to a request to provide medical care and investigate the situation in a camp outside Port-au-Prince after two people died. Luckily, it never ballooned to epidemic proportion.

But, with hurricane season now settling in and hundreds of thousands still without homes, the risk for an outbreak of disease is far from over.

“These clinics have done their part to prevent and treat disease,” says Dr. Cangao. “But they will continue to be critical, especially as we explore new ways to build the capacity of both private and government systems, to make sure that more Haitians have access to care where and when they need it.”

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