CARREFOUR, HAITI – It is the height of rainy season in Haiti, and the health effects are evident in the pediatrics ward of the Red Cross field hospital in Carrefour. Pierre Dell, a tiny boy who is only six weeks old, is breathing heavily as he lies on a cot beside his mother. Like so many children in this hospital, Pierre is suffering from pneumonia and respiratory problems caused by damp and unsanitary living conditions.
Pierre’s short life has already been hard. His family’s home collapsed in the January 12th earthquake that devastated Haiti – four relatives died in the house – and Pierre was born in a makeshift tent in one of the spontaneous camps that sprang up after the disaster.
His mother, Rose Saint Rulus, complains about the heat and persistent dampness in the tent, where eight family members live practically on top of each other. Pierre was first admitted to the hospital with a fever when he was only nine days old. Now he is back battling pneumonia. Since Rose is at his bedside around the clock, her four other children – aged 12 to three – spend their days alone in the tent.
Cases like Pierre’s are all too common here. In the past few weeks, the Red Cross hospital has seen a surge of cases among children with respiratory problems. Half the children in the intensive-care unit, and many more in the pediatrics ward, are suffering from pneumonia, bronchitis and other breathing issues. Now this hospital, which has received $1.8 million in financial support from the American Red Cross, is keeping alive children who might not have survived in the past.
“Pneumonia could kill a baby without treatment,” says Dr Katrina Hennings, a pediatrician with the German Red Cross who is overseeing the ward. “They need oxygen and antibiotics. Before this hospital opened, many of them just died.”
The field hospital, located in a former sports stadium, has treated more than 50,000 patients and another 7,300 mother-child pairs since it opened after the earthquake. Managed by the German and Finnish Red Cross societies, the hospital is especially known for the care it gives to new mothers and infants: it is the only institution on this southern flank of Port au Prince that has a neo-natal unit. The busiest place in the hospital is the maternity ward. It averages about 15 births a day, or 400 to 500 per month.
Haiti’s health system was already stretched to the limits even before the earthquake hit. One in 47 women died in childbirth, according to UNICEF, and one in 13 children died of waterborne diseases before the age of five. More than 40% of one-year-olds had not been immunized against measles.
In response to the disaster, the Red Cross has dramatically increased its health support for Haitians. A mass immunization campaign was launched soon after the earthquake, helping prevent the outbreak of disease that many feared would further devastate the vulnerable population. More than 900,000 people were inoculated against diphtheria, tetanus, pertusis, measles and Rubella. Today dozens of health promoters are traveling from tent to tent in spontaneous camps in recent months, educating the most vulnerable Haitians about how to prevent malaria and HIV/AIDS, as well as distributing mosquito nets and condoms. The Red Cross is also providing financial support to the largest general hospital in Port au Prince, and is funding the construction of a facility to manufacture prosthetic limbs.
For the mothers like Rose, the Red Cross support of health programs in Haiti can mean the difference between their children surviving or not. She brought little Pierre to the Red Cross hospital in Carrefour after hearing about its good reputation for infant care. “The mothers talk about that,” she says. “They know it’s a good place.”