Public Support for UN Haiti Relief Efforts Still Essential

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Although the Haitian earthquake no longer classifies as 'news,' the devastating natural disaster has permeated public consciousness over the past months. However, in doing so, it has fallen to the proverbial back burner of our minds. While the media has largely moved on to other topics, we must remember that, for the Haitian people, the recovery process is a much slower one.

In light of the large-scale destruction caused by the earthquake in January, it is easy to forget that Haiti was a troubled country before the crisis hit, particularly from a medical perspective. Often referred to as a 'health care nightmare' even before the devastation, Haiti's health care spending ranks last in the Western hemisphere, with a ratio of 1 doctor to 10,000 of its inhabitants. To date, Haiti has the highest incidence of HIV outside of Africa, with approximately 5000 babies born annually already infected with AIDS.

Jacmel, the capital of the South-east region of Haiti, is a microcosm for the failure of Haiti's health care system. H˘pital Saint-Michel in Jacmel, the only reference hospital for the entire region, boasted of a staff of only 6 doctors and 10 nurses before the earthquake. Fondly nicknamed 'the morgue' by the locals, it severely lacked almost all basic necessities, from ambulances, to medical supplies, to qualified health workers, surgeons and anesthesiologists. As a result of these extreme deficiences and a generalized inaccessibility of access to medical care, pre-quake Haitians relied heavily on 'ounagans' (voodoo priests) for medical treatments.

Contrary to widespread criticism that aid agencies only appear after a crisis, the United Nations has been addressing health care concerns in Haiti long before the earthquake. UNICEF worked in antenatal settings, providing support for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of AIDS, and preventing the spread of the virus among young women. In 2005, UNAIDS and the UN Population Fund provided leadership in capacity building for those living with HIV.

Following the earthquake, the UN health care challenge only grew more formidable, with almost 200,000 deceased and more than 300,000 suffering of injury. Three months later, Haiti's indigence is no less imminent, though the needs have changed. The focus of health care efforts are now on post-operation care: follow-up treatments for patients who have undergone surgery, childcare, rehabilitation for the disabled, and most importantly, outbreak control to prevent the start of epidemics. The WHO has dispatched over 100 international experts in disaster management, epidemiology, public health, communicable disease and the like, in their best efforts to respond to the current situation. The WHO is also responsible for the Health Cluster Response, an effort to organize collective health efforts in Haiti, with which 396 national and international organizations have registered.

Such health-related efforts comprise only a small part of the overall UN initiative in Haiti. In order to further these endeavours, public support and awareness are absolutely essential. The UN's efforts in Haiti are long-term, and will continue long after Haiti ceases to be a news headline. The United Nations Association of the United States of America (UNA-USA) is a non-profit membership organization dedicated to building understanding of and support for the ideals and work of the UN among the American people. To pledge your support to the UN and the world it hopes to create, visit www.unausa.org.


Rosie Keegel is a UC Berkeley student. Reply to [email protected]



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