Basic medicines running out as doctors, aid groups treat Haiti’s thousands of sick and injured

By Ben Fox, AP
Friday, January 29, 2010

Medicine running out at Haiti hospitals, clinics

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Doctors and aid workers are running dangerously low of supplies in Haiti’s capital and in the countryside, complicating efforts to treat 200,000 people in need of post-surgery care following the earthquake and increasing the potential of many more deaths due to infection and disease.

As days turn to weeks, doctors struggling to keep up with demand in devastated hospitals and improvised clinics are warning of a looming public health calamity as earthquake survivors with untreated injuries fail to get proper attention, Elisabeth Byrs, of the U.N.’s humanitarian coordination office said Friday in Geneva.

Poor sanitation can also kill as tens of thousands of Haitians living in squalid camps with limited water, she said.

Medical teams also are seeing a big shift in the types of cases they are treating, World Health Organization spokesman Paul Garwood said Friday in Geneva. He said there are a growing number of diarrhea cases, as well as unconfirmed reports of a rise in measles and tetanus cases in resettlement camps — a particularly worrying development because of the high population density in the camps.

“The health care system in Haiti has been terribly affected by the earthquake,” said Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Federation of the Red Cross. “Medical staff have been killed and injured, hospitals destroyed and stocks damaged and depleted.”

Dr. Nancy Fleurancois, volunteering at a damaged hospital in the Haitian coastal town of Jacmel, said Thursday that her team is treating 500 people a day — many for the first time since the Jan. 12 quake — and desperately needs antibiotics and surgical supplies.

“You see people come here and they are at death’s door,” said Fleurancois, a Haitian-American from Newark, Delaware. “More help is needed.”

Anthony Banbury, deputy head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, said during a tour of Jacmel that he would try to resolve Fleurancois’ shortages — but he noted there is a “grave need” for medicine all over Haiti.

Those needs are competing with the urgency of delivering tons of food, water and tents which, like the medicine, are delayed by bottlenecks as a result of damaged roads and ports and a tiny airport that is unable to accommodate the backlog of flights waiting to deliver supplies. Coordination remains a problem, leaving big gaps in the distribution of food and medicine.

An estimated 200,000 family-size tents are needed as temporary shelter for the homeless, international agencies say, but only a fraction of that number are in Haiti or on their way. In Jacmel alone, more than 20,000 people are homeless.

Food is also still in short supply: The U.N. World Food Program says it has delivered more than 4 million rations, equivalent to more than 13 million meals, to 500,000 people. But it projects that 2 million Haitians need food aid — now and until December.

Desperate Haitians long accustomed to relying on themselves rather than government handouts have resorted to looting the collapsed stores in Port-au-Prince. Armed Haitian police have tried to stop them by firing guns in the air and threatening them with their batons. Several people have been injured.

On Friday, hundreds of demonstrators near downtown Port-au-Prince protested against the police actions while cheering U.S. troops who have confined their activities to clearing rubble.

Officials estimate the quake killed as many as 200,000 people and injured another 200,000. Among the injured are more than 2,000 people who have had amputations, a number that is likely to increase, said Dr. Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization. Those patients are in need of postoperative care to prevent infection.

At the chaotic General Hospital in downtown Port-au-Prince, amputees groan in pain while recovering in canvas tents in the courtyard of the damaged structure. There is a shortage of painkillers as well as crutches, wheelchairs and physical therapy equipment, said Dr. Bob Norris, who leads an International Medical Corps team of physicians.

“We have a country full of people with new amputations who have to learn how to live their lives,” Norris said.

At the Bernard Mevs Hospital near the airport, administrator Kathleen Sejour said doctors are short of such basic supplies as gloves, gauze and antiseptic as well as malaria medicine and treatment for amputees.

“There are too many patients we’re seeing who have malaria,” Sejour said. “Most of the kids right now have it.”

At a clinic run by U.S.-based ACTS World Relief and a Haitian group called Operation Hope in Carrefour, a hard-hit Port-au-Prince district, volunteer Dr. Laura Asher said just about everything doctors need is lacking as they treat hundreds. She said she had pleaded with international aid agencies and better-funded private groups for help.

“It’s a constant need, a constant need. Every day we go out and beg,” Asher, of Silver Spring, Maryland, said as patients waited in the shade of the front yard of the clinic, which has been set up in a house.

To be sure, there are any number of small groups providing badly needed medical aid, and not all are running low.

Dr. Margaret Degand, who runs a private clinic in Petionville, said her depleted stocks were replenished by a French humanitarian organization.

Officials from both Doctors Without Borders and the International Federation of the Red Cross said both organizations have adequate medical equipment and supplies.

But even some of the largest institutions are feeling the strain.

The Navy hospital ship USNS Comfort reached its “care limit” after treating more than 3,000 people, Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, told reporters Thursday. U.S. authorities are now planning a new treatment center for up to 5,000 patients on land provided by the Haitian government.

Associated Press writers contributing to this report include Paisley Dodds and Vivian Sequera in Port-au-Prince; David McFadden in San Juan, Puerto Rico; Juan Zamorano in Panama City; Frank Jordans in Geneva; and Mike Stobbe in Atlanta.

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