A spokesman from the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti commented that this week’s unrest in the north of the country bore testimony to the fragile state of a people traumatised by the events of the past year. Following the devastating earthquake, Haitians have more recently had to cope with hurricane Tomas and now the cholera epidemic. With elections due at the end of the month, the spokesman said it was hardly surprising emotions were running high.
Following riots in the northern city of Cap-Haitien, the UN was forced to delay flights to the area. UN officials were also concerned that the blocking of roads was delaying people from bringing sick relatives to hospitals. Demonstrations were sparked by fears that United Nations troops from Nepal may have brought cholera to the island. Though all the Nepalese peacekeepers have tested negative, rumours and fears about the source of the cholera still abound. The epidemic has now claimed over 1,100 lives and more than 18,000 Haitians have contracted the disease, causing another wave of misery in this struggling Caribbean country.
Aid agencies working across the country are increasingly stretched. The head of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Haiti said that even though more staff were arriving, his organisation was “close to being overwhelmed”. And it isn’t only cholera which the many foreign medics on the island are coping with. Tuberculosis (TB) is seen to be a real threat now many are living in the crowded conditions of the tented cities in Port-au-Prince. A doctor working with one HIV and TB-focused non-governmental organisation said the earthquake in January had destroyed the main hospital for treating cases of drug-resistant TB. Now conditions were perfect for the spread of TB, with many tents having 6-10 occupants living in close proximity. Any existing TB patients have been traced to ensure they continue their medication and patients have been isolated where necessary. But doctors are remaining vigilant, hoping a recent rise in TB cases may just be due to increased screening of locals by volunteer organisations.
Haiti was known to be suffering from a TB epidemic before the earthquake, with over 300 cases reported for every 100,000 people, the highest infection rate in the western hemisphere. As with most of the developing world, the high incidence of TB is closely allied to the rates of HIV in the country, with 2.2 per cent of the population HIV positive. New tented-centres for the treatment of TB have been set up by aid organisations, though as with other health centres, doctors are concerned they could soon reach capacity. Health workers say that a priority for any new government after the elections will be the rebuilding of the health system. Those working in the field of TB and HIV, hope that a new strategic plan can also be formed to address the ongoing care required for these diseases, though they admit putting in place a long-term structure for adequate treatment and care of all those affected will be “a challenge”.