January 12, 2014 | Port-au-Prince (Haiti)
Four years ago today, Haiti was struck by the deadliest earthquake the Caribbean island has ever experienced. While the earthquake destroyed homes and took an untold number of lives, it also caused and exacerbated severe public health issues impacting millions more Haitians across the country.
Several infectious diseases have long plagued the Haitian population: tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, diphtheria, typhoid, meningococcal meningitis and leptospirosis. Additionally, a deadly cholera epidemic took root in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake, and continues to spread beyond its borders, jeopardizing the public health of the region as a whole.
The cholera epidemic, still raging since it began three years ago, has become the subject of a lawsuit recently filed by human rights lawyers against the United Nations (UN). Filed on behalf of victims of the outbreak that has killed more than 8,000 and sickened 650,000 more, the lawsuit accuses the UN of gross negligence and misconduct. The 2010 outbreak has been widely attributed to the presence of UN peacekeepers from Nepal following the earthquake, who inadvertently contaminated Haiti’s largest river – a source of water for drinking and bathing for thousands of Haitians – due to the base’s faulty sanitation system.
Cholera is transmitted through fecal contamination of food and water, and is therefore primarily spread in areas with poor water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) conditions. The earthquake devastated infrastructure in Haiti, worsening WASH conditions and making the Haitian population much more vulnerable to cholera. Reconstruction efforts have been slow, and the disease continues to spread through inadequate sanitation systems. Since the fall of 2010, the cholera epidemic has spread to the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and most recently Mexico. People visiting the region have also brought isolated cases back to South America and Europe.
Another major health issue exacerbated by the 2010 earthquake is tuberculosis (TB). Even before the 2010 earthquake, Haiti had the highest rate of the respiratory infection in the Western Hemisphere, though the transmission of the TB increased in the wake of the earthquake. Because coughing, sneezing and spitting spread TB from person to person, the crowded and unsanitary makeshift camps – inhabited by more than a million earthquake survivors – have become a breeding ground for TB. The continually high rates of HIV in Haiti increase the likelihood of TB infection among the large number of HIV-positive Haitians with weakened immune systems.
Four years after the disaster, thousands of Haitians remain homeless and susceptible to the spread of such deadly infectious diseases.
Fondation Mérieux has been active in Haiti since 2002, and continues to work to diagnose infectious diseases and prevent epidemics in the country in the wake of the earthquake. In 2008, Fondation Mérieux established the Rodolphe Mérieux Laboratory as part of the Haitian Group for the Study of Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Opportunistic Infections’ (GHESKIO) Institute of Infectious Diseases and Reproductive Health in Porte-au-Prince. The 70-person team working at this laboratory diagnoses multi-drug resistant tuberculosis, cholera and HIV infection, enabling effective treatment of patients.
Fondation Mérieux’s work in Haiti expanded in 2011 through the inauguration of the Bachelor of Science in Biological and Applied Medical Sciences (BAMS) program, which trains laboratory technicians in order to improve the quality and reliability of diagnoses made in laboratories around the country.
Despite the outpouring of humanitarian aid from around the world following the earthquake, Haiti continues to face incredible challenges. On the fourth anniversary of this devastating natural disaster, Fondation Mérieux remains more committed than ever to its work in Haiti and is hopeful for a better and healthier future for the Haitian population.