Desperation grows in Haiti, officials worry about santitation as well as food, water, shelter

By Paisley Dodds, AP
Saturday, January 30, 2010

Latrines join food, water on Haiti’s crisis list

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — 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 a 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., Oxfam and other aid organizations have 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 Pan American Health Organization, said nearly three dozen organizations were joining the U.N.-led effort to build latrines and handle solid waste disposal.

In other developments:

— Ten Americans were detained by Haitian police on Saturday as they tried to bus 33 children across the border into the Dominican Republic, allegedly without proper documents. The Baptist church members from Idaho called it a “Haitian Orphan Rescue Mission” to save abandoned children in the disaster zone. But the Americans — the first known to be detained since the earthquake — put themselves in the middle of a political firestorm over fears that children are falling prey to child trafficking. A Monday hearing before a judge was scheduled.

— U.N. officials say they are still far short of reaching all 2 million quake victims estimated to need food aid, but distribution was becoming more organized as the World Food Program 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 25 kilograms (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.

— Federal agencies scrambled to explain the U.S. military’s suspension of medical evacuations of critically ill Haitians to the United States in a dispute over where the victims should be treated. White House officials said they were working to increase hospital capacity in Haiti and aboard the USNS Comfort hospital ship as well as in the United States. U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten said about 435 earthquake victims had been evacuated before the suspension, and that the issue should be resolved quickly. “I’m sure the Department of Defense wants to do the right thing, as do we,” he said.

“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. That included 5-year-old Betina Joseph, who developed tetanus from a small cut in her thigh. Doctors said Saturday that she had just 24 hours to live if not provided with respirator care.

Associated Press writers Evens Sanon, Michelle Faul and Ben Fox contributed to this report.

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