Haiti 2010 Earthquake Response

Outbreak of malaria threatens Haiti’s homeless


Photo:  Tess Williams/Oxfam (Flickr/cc)

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports eleven cases of the malaria strain P. falciparum among aid workers and Haitian residents.

“Displaced persons living outdoors or in temporary shelters and thousands of emergency responders in Haiti is at substantial risk for malaria”, said the CDC.

The outbreak gives additional urgency to the need to provide the estimated 1.2 million homeless Haitians with tents with screening to keep out mosquitoes that spread the disease.  At present, only about 40 percent of those left homeless by the January 12 earthquake have received any kind of shelter materials, typically plastic sheeting, tarps or tents.

To date, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has focused on providing plastic sheeting (or tarps), not tents, although tarps provide no protection from mosquitoes and offer superficial protection from the expected heavy spring rains.

Initially, the UN also embraced the tarp strategy, but on March 1, UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton urged UN agencies to provide tents.  Plastic sheeting is a penny-wise, pound-foolish strategy that saves tens of dollars upfront, but promises to cost thousands of dollars per person in long-term healthcare, and countless lives.

“Falciparum is the killer strain of malaria. It can cause intestinal hemorrhaging, cerebral inflammation or pneumonitis, which is aninflammation of the lungs. Cerebral malaria has a significant death rate”, said Dr. Gordon Dickinson, Chief of Infectious Diseases at the UM Medical School.

President Obama should ask USAID Administrator Dr. Rajiv Shah why his agency ignored advice from its sister agency, the CDC.  CDC advised “sleeping in air-conditioned or well-screened rooms or using bed nets,” to protect against malaria. Nevertheless, USAID provided plastic sheeting and urged other relief organizations to provide the same.

During recent discussions with the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies—the new Shelter Cluster lead—the USAID/DART shelter and settlements advisor emphasized the importance of linking plastic sheeting for emergency shelter purposes to broader transitional shelter assistance. [USAID report]

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