Rebuilding health sector is "long-term challenge"

Red Cross volunteers at Cite Soliel
Les hôpitaux de campagne ont permis de désengorger les structures sanitaires (American Red Cross/Talia Frenkel)

As Haiti’s overstretched hospitals struggle to cope with the immediate needs of survivors of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) is calling for a response that equips the health sector for any future disasters.



"The country has a disaster every year," Dana van Alphen told IRIN from Port-au-Prince where she is WHO coordinator for health interventions in Haiti following the earthquake, but never recovers sufficiently to fully prepare for the next one.



The governments of Brazil, Israel, Russia and Jamaica have set up operational field hospitals, as have Canada, Colombia and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. There are also eight functioning state hospitals in Port-au-Prince.



Van Alphen told IRIN it was unclear how structurally sound the hospitals were. "We cannot get structural engineers into Haiti. There are not many in this region and then there is the logistical difficulty of bringing anyone here at this point."



Haiti had not been evaluated under the Pan American Health Organization Safety Hospital Initiatives, a disaster preparedness assessment. Hurricane-prone Caribbean countries that had already been assessed include Nevis, St Kitts, Grenada, Montserrat, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines, Anguilla, Dominica, Barbados and Cuba.



When asked how Van Alpen rated Haiti's disaster-preparedness, she replied: "The health infrastructure was already weak and it is almost non-existent in some places."



Aid flows will slow



WHO's safe hospital initiative coordinator, Jonathan Abrahams, told IRIN: "It is not just an issue for the Health Ministry. We need environmentalists, structural engineers, water and sanitation experts, plus health officials. The difficulty of involving so many actors and the tendency of people to not think about disasters until they happen relegates hospital safety to the backburner even though it is supposed to be a safe haven in [a time of] disaster."



One week into the healthcare relief, Van Alpen told IRIN the rapid infusion of aid would taper off, even though needs would grow. "A lot of aid is coming, but many of them [humanitarians] are already planning their exit. That is when the real work will start to rebuild Haiti and to strengthen the national authorities."



She added that unless donors and volunteers worked in acute trauma care, cash was the best aid. "We have specific needs - anti-tetanus serums, for example. The needs … change with time. Now you have need of surgery, but maternal care has already started to be critical. Right now we are overwhelmed by trauma care, but long-term public health issues are also important."



The UN has estimated Haiti's health and nutrition needs at US$82 million.



While in-kind donations are saving lives, UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs spokesman, Nick Reader, told IRIN that without adequate follow-through, such donations would not help. "You can send a hospital, but we will need to transport, staff, equip and maintain it. A medical centre alone is not enough."



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