Global Health, Public Health, Public health concern

Health communication in the time of Zika in Haiti

The day was coming to its end as I was dealing with annoying paperwork at an outpatient clinic in the area of Delmas, in Port-au-Prince. The attending nurse sharply knocked at the door and introduced me to Zoune, a woman in her mid-forties. Calmed by the fan in motion, the ambient heat hardly bothered on this particular afternoon. Even though January hasn’t seen any rain yet, puddles and piles of rubbish in the streets form a sure cottage for mosquitoes. The tropical temperature also stimulates their reproduction. Zoune presented clinical features of the Zika disease, urging me to initiate a symptomatic treatment based on my judgment and order a few screening tests. Ever since the confirmation of Zika cases in Haiti by the Health Department (and even before) the public carefully monitor themselves for signs of the disease and inquire with their doctor. Of course some prefer to get themselves treated with simple non-pharmaceutical interventions.

The Zika virus disease is transmitted by the bite of Aedes mosquitoes, infected by the virus. Identified in humans for the first time in 1952 in Uganda and Tanzania (Emerging point of Chikungunya virus which caused an outbreak in Haiti in 2014), it spreads especially in Africa and tropical countries. This non-fatal disease involves a febrile syndrome associated with lumbago (pain in the lower back), simulating Chikungunya or malaria which is endemic in Haiti. The emergence of Zika virus disease was foretold long before its introduction in Haiti. Climatic conditions punctuated by global warming as well as migration have positively contributed to its emergence.

Currently, one can refer to an epidemic in Haiti since Zika was simply non-existent across the territory. Even though it’s relatively simple to limit its spread- provided that hygiene and sanitation measures are met- difficulties particularly arise on this level. How to involve most of the people in this dynamic? Proactive communication is the first step in management of an epidemic. But between the limited resources and the outright flaws in the Haitian healthcare system, the public is far from being reassured. Communication weaknesses have already started to plague the good management of this outbreak, hence affecting trust even more. As a matter of fact, the confirmation notice of the presence of the disease in Haiti came late compared to expectations of the people who observed that it was rapidly gaining ground and awaited a word from the Ministry of Health.

According to my observations, the greatest fear of the public lies in the eventual complications of the Zika virus disease; mainly brain malformation in newborns and Guillain Barre Syndrome which causes paralysis of the body. Although scientific literature hasn’t confirmed any link between these complications and Zika yet, in some countries where Zika spreads, women are warned to delay pregnancy or to avoid areas affected by outbreaks. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have elaborated guidelines for the screening of pregnant women by gynecologists. Some see this as a unique opportunity to revive the debate on abortion in countries where a modern law is lacking. But at the time of writing, no campaign whatsoever is officially launched in Haiti thus, no warning regarding pregnancy or increased promotion of contraception services has been issued by the Health Department. The public is therefore facing the fear of this epidemic with the feeling of being on their own.

In order to foster behavioral changes necessary to protect lives, it’s important to know the perceptions and existing practices of the population. A never-ending conversation with the public allows effective management and is worth more than sparse and scant monologues in times of panic. During the Chikungunya outbreak in 2014, the organization I co-founded integrAction was delighted to share ideas and experiences with the socio-medical staff of the Haitian Red-Cross (many of whom were infected) in Cap-Haitian during a conference. This initiative helped the organization conceive groundbreaking campaign with appropriate health communication to raise awareness via social media on the disease and the means to cope with it.

On a broader scale, the current turn of public health history is an opportunity to consider reinforcing leadership capacities from the bottom to the top, while investing in research and improving the public’s health literacy. For most of the population, there’s more fear than harm as in the case of Zoune. So engaging the people through proactive communication followed by prompt action is one of the best ways to halt the spread of Zika and its potential consequences. As they express much disappointment, the Haitian people can only hope for less vulnerability. But if today’s duties are unceasingly postponed, the future, undoubtedly, can only be more grim.

A health worker fumigates the Altos del Cerro neighbourhood as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Soyapango, El Salvador

A health worker fumigates the Altos del Cerro neighbourhood as part of preventive measures against the Zika virus and other mosquito-borne diseases in Soyapango, El Salvador January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Advertisements
Standard
Public Health

How January 12 reopened the conversation on Haiti’s healthcare system

A typical January morning in Haiti, the 12th of the year 2010 greeted a bright sun and the usual bustle of the island life. While the majority of schools and churches were functioning as usual, traders crowded the pavements, carelessly dealing with their routine. Hope warmed up the hearts of the Port-au-Prince population, following the sweet Christmas of 2009 whose memories were still fresh. But on this day, a magnitude 7 earthquake was registered as a painful page in the life of the people, definitely changing the course of history by taking the lives of hundreds of thousands of Haitians. Countless people have suffered serious injuries, including those who have seen their mobility limited overnight or the ones amputated one or more members in order to survive. In all minds, fissures are still present today either as post-traumatic shock disorder or severe depression. Since then, new sets of questions have punctuated our daily lives, especially related to our way of embracing the future. This catastrophic event opened the way for new conversations about the Haitian health system. Words and ideas are far from exhaustion as the wounds are still slow to heal.

In March 2011, one year after the unfortunate event, Dr Jean Hugues Henrys, current Dean of the Faculty of Medicine of the University Notre Dame of Haiti, gave a speech at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. Through the course of his lecture, he has drawn the profile of the existing Haitian health system before the earthquake, compared to a set of decentralized health microsystem, in transition between infectious and chronic diseases. In the aftermath of the disaster, it was imperative to adapt according to Dr Henrys, because the many amputees were considered a priority, while hardly enough resources were available to support them. He also emphasized the urgent need to provide mental health services to the people while the subject was sparsely considered in the past, forsaking many to discrimination and stigma. This has revealed the lack of disaster preparedness that existed in the healthcare system on many levels: logistics, human resources and education.

For Dr Henrys, a partnership between public and private institutions would contribute to ensure a better future. Inaugurated two years after the earthquake, the university hospital of Mirebalais born of the partnership between the Ministry of Health and Partners In Health (US-based NGO operating in Haiti), treats patients through its various services and largely contributes to educate the new generations of nurses and Haitian doctors. It is among other projects that have emerged in an effort to better equip the country with capabilities to respond to eventual catastrophes seen as a constant risk.

But the lack of preparedness which patients were the victim following the January 12 concerned not only the psychological and medical care themselves but went well beyond. The Haitian health system was evolving in a chaotic situation and also deserved attention. The fear of a “phantom epidemic” of diphtheria fueled the minds for weeks following the disaster while a true epidemic was unlikely and coordination between NGOs was poor. In an article published in 2013 entitled “The celebrity as Hero: When Sean Penn has Fought Phantom Epidemic“, the American journalist Jonathan Katz counted the panic caused by the death of Oriel, aged 15 years, blaming the lack of a competent system which the teen’s parents could have used days earlier. The infrastructures already shaky before the earthquake, had completely disappeared on January 12, leaving the country in the most complete desolation when a cholera epidemic erupted by the end of the year 2010. More than infrastructural and organizational issues have been raised in the debate around the Haitian healthcare system after the earthquake.

Talea Miller quoted in her article “Haiti’s Health Care System Faces a Defining Moment” published in June 2010; Minister Alex Larsen said that the state of New York has more Haitian doctors than Haiti itself. While the exodus of health workers already afflicted the health system before the earthquake, it worsened after January 12 following numerous personal losses and the deaths of many doctors and nurses whose proportion in number was highest in Port -at-Prince. This chronic haemorrhage of medical staff also nourished the debate around the health system. With only 3.5 health professionals for 100,000 inhabitants, Haiti lies behind the standards stated by the World Health Organization. Paradoxically, the broken state of the Haitian healthcare system drives away its most important assets, while they are needed to fix it.

As reported by Talea Miller, Dr Larsen believed that human resources were more important than physical infrastructures in the wake of the earthquake and advocated the benefits of conjoined educational programs between Haitian and foreign universities. Since 2010, volunteer medical teams from the United States and Canada regularly participate in mission trips at the Hospital Bernard Mevs at Port-au-Prince and largely benefit the healthcare system in terms of services and education of emergency care physicians and pediatricians.

Six years after the earthquake, the Ministry of Public Health still faces much trouble in order to pursue its core mission. One of the major difficulties lies in the financing of the system. Despite their meager resources, the households finance 96% of their health needs in spite of the minimum package of services offered by the state. We must recall that the budget allocated to the health sector does not exceed 6% of the national budget. Regardless, new structures and programs are emerging across the country, primarily financed by donor countries. But in spite of this, health indicators remain alarming and the system statistically inefficient. At a conference on health financing in 2014, Dr. Jean Alfred Patrick mentioned that there is a weakness in the regulation and coordination of health financing systems in Haiti. In other words, bad governance plagues any sustainable progress in the health sector. Instead of motivating more Haitian doctors, this context contributes to push them towards immigration.

Today, January 12, 2016, as the Haitian people commemorate the lives of the earthquake victims, they consider the path already travelled and the long road ahead. Over the past 6 years, they have discussed on many platforms the best ways to redirect the public health priorities and goals, increase capabilities in disaster preparedness, enhance the mental health of citizens, reconstruct the many destroyed health facilities, retain qualified health professionals and promote good governance in the healthcare system. From the debates, tangible solutions have been considered and implemented. And as long as the conversations keep going, there’s hope that Haitian lives will stand on unshakable ground.

candles

Standard
Public Health, Public health concern, Social Issue

Let’s change the rules to save women’s lives in Haiti

Fairly called Poto Mitan in Haitian Creole, women account for 50.49% of the Haitian population and represent the center pillar of most households. From commerce to education, their contributions to the society are undeniable. As the prosperity of the nation relies on its citizen’s well-being, it is no surprise that women’s health is a public health priority when it comes to the national health policies. But despite the efforts, unsafe abortion remains unfortunately a scourge as prevalent as poorly addressed.

I recall my last shift at Chancerelles’ maternity ward where a 16 year-old pregnant girl presented with intense abdominal pain and massive vaginal bleeding. At first, she did not admit any medication ingestion prior to the onset of her symptoms. But as we pursue the medical investigations, her 30-year-old boyfriend confessed that he had provided her with 4 pills of an over-the-counter drug known to provoke abortion in pregnant women. For the gynecology residents, it was a routine and classic case. Yet openly discussing unsafe arrest of pregnancy in Haiti is controversial since it’s so much of a taboo.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines unsafe abortion as a procedure for terminating a pregnancy performed by persons lacking the necessary skills or in an environment not in conformity with minimal medical standards, or both. Every year, 50.000 women, mostly from Latin America and Caribbean countries, die from consequences of unsafe abortion. According to the article 262 of the Haitian penal code, induced abortion no matter where or who performs it, is a criminal act and legally punished nationwide. But regardless of the law (or maybe because of it), complications of clandestine abortions are common motives of visit in general and obstetrical care facilities.

SDG3

Target: By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services.

Carole, the latest patient I examined, was going through her second abortion experience and presented with severe anemia after 15 days of bleeding. When she got pregnant, economic difficulties arose, urging her to take the decision with her husband’s consent. But the specialized hospital she visited wouldn’t provide the desired services as forbidden by the law. So she turned to a clandestine clinic, even when the fees were high. As we shared our opinions, she said that it would be beneficial for women to abort safely with optimal medical assistance because the absence of a legal framework for safe abortion and technical capacities almost took her life away.

A few days later an obstetrician and HIV care specialist told me that to alter the perilous consequences of unsafe abortion in Haiti, it would be best to decriminalize it. Among the 530 women deaths per 100.000 inhabitants per year in Haiti, 120 are attributed to unsafe abortion. Fortunately, in the last quinquennium, the Ministry of Health has debated the subject and elaborated a new bill with several social groups to allow abortion for medical purpose and in rape cases. This is one step forward in the modernization of women’s health in Haiti even when it hasn’t reach the parliament yet.

But the main causes of induced abortion being socio-economic status, maybe the bill should also include women who desire to arrest their pregnancy for any reason other than congenital malformations or rape. It would be better if every woman could openly  discuss it with their doctors.

Because it is the State’s duty to guarantee optimal health care to the population, and health is not restricted to the body. It includes mental and social well being.

It would be valuable to couple activism with effective health communication. Because often, the barriers to improving women’s health in Haiti are some erroneous traditional beliefs. My intention here is not to downplay any religious or cultural values, as some have actually improved women’s health. My advocacy is to conduct proper scientific studies on this public health issue and clearly communicate the best ways to prevent the consequences. After all, prevention costs exponentially less than complication management and as the recently published statistics show, the State’s funds have long been depleted.

Standard