Health care in Haiti a battered system is dealt another blow

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When a powerful earthquake struck Haiti on Tuesday, many of those injured by collapsed buildings lay in the streets pleading for help. Even for those with open fractures and head injuries, there was little else they could do.

Haiti is not prepared to handle disaster.

By every measure, it’s the poorest country in the Western hemisphere and it has a health care system to match.

There have been improvements in overall life expectancy and infant mortality, and vaccination programs have helped largely eradicate some diseases like polio, but the country remains desperate for affordable health services. What few services existed declined in the last two decades because of political instability.

The country spends less than $85 per person on health care every year, and much of what is actually delivered is done by a patchwork of agencies from around the world.

Haiti has a public health crisis, according to Mdecins Sans Frontires (MSF)/Doctors Without Borders, one of several foreign medical aid groups that operate free emergency health services in the country. MSF’s own clinics are often overwhelmed by people who can’t afford to pay for private care. Public hospitals and clinics are plagued by management problems and shortages of medications, says the organization.

“The reality of what we are seeing is severe traumas, head wounds, crushed limbs, severe problems that cannot be dealt with with the level of medical care we currently have available with no infrastructure really to support it,” said Paul McPhun, operations manager for the group’s Canadian section. The country’s health indicators are grim. The average life expectancy is about 52, and Haiti has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the region.

More than 138,000 children under five die of preventable diseases every year, and women routinely die terrible deaths in childbirth because they live too far away from medical help, in rural areas without services or simply can’t afford to pay for services.

UNICEF says that out of every 100,000 live births, 670 women died of pregnancy-related causes in 2006. That’s five times the Latin American average.

Diarrhea, respiratory infections, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV/AIDS are leading causes of death. There is poor sanitation and increasing malnutrition, brought on by growing poverty.

In rural areas, only 14 per cent of residents have adequate sanitation, and most rural Haitians lack even basic health care services.