Social Issue

A tale of two Haiti(s)

My brother Keddy and I grew up in Karenaj, a then hassle-free neighborhood in the world-renowned city of Cap-Haitien. Although our family had relatives in Saint-Michel de l’Attalaye, an Artibonite county south of Cap-Haitien, we lived far removed from rural Haiti, except for a few sporadic trips to “andeyò” which is the term Haitians use to refer to rural areas. It’s a Kreyòl word derived from the french “en dehors” translated as outside. So my twin and I, we were raised unfamiliar with most traditional food and to a greater extent, the language and culture of Haiti’s rural regions with their complexity and richness.

When our grand-mother passed away, I could feel that the few stories of Saint-Michel along with anecdotes of our elderly’s rural trips had also vanished. But now, as adults and doctors, we’ve managed to visit the entire country apart from Grand-Anse, either during professional endeavors or on personal adventures. As far as we could tell, decades later, differences still persist between how us, city-raised gentlemen, perceive and express reality and how rural populations do. Not only the rhetoric differs but the very elements of culture struggle to collide. During our trips, those gaps even impaired our ability to communicate with the locals. In terms of local tourism, this situation wouldn’t be much of an issue. But consider the heavy toll of such discrepancy when it comes to patients explaining their symptoms or when it comes to us doctors communicating health risks and treatment options.

In the 1970s, as Haiti’s agriculture sector plummeted, people massively moved from rural regions to adjacent towns in search of a better life. Throughout the decades, the dynamics of rural exodus have only made this transit skyrocket. More than half of Haiti’s population now live in cities. Needless to say that the emigrants carry what they have accumulated as a cultural background with them. The vacuum left by such demographic movement and social context leaves the rural areas very vulnerable. Which in turn often leads to city dwellers, with their own culture, to commute to rural areas for work-related projects, many of them provided by NGOs. This is how we found ourselves on a day-to-day journey trying to comprehend each other.

In rural populations, overcoming issues such as academic illiteracy or comprehending the beliefs in magico-spiritual forces is often a pre requisite for creating rapport and therefore to have impact on a patient’s health outcome. But some other concerns are subtler. I recall having examined an old woman named Annia in Saint-Antoine, a neighborhood next to Poupelard avenue, in Lalue, Port-au-prince. The old woman was from the South and had settled in Saint-Antoine less than 2 years prior to her consultation. Visibly uncomfortable, she described her pain to me in those words: as if a stack of millet was being pounded upon with a big pestle. She made it clear: – “The big ones Doc, not the small ones”. Coffee is very much engrained in every Haitian’s life and I’m very familiar with scenes of people pounding coffee roasts in big pestles, it happens in rural zones as in certain towns, but I sure had no idea as to what it feels like. And can’t obviously make the difference between the big and smaller ones, except for their size. While I was expecting her to describe her symptoms using my words, she relied on images of her daily life. As she spoke, even though we speak the same language, I could feel the gap between us widen and as if we were losing each other.

Keddy has also experienced such “language barrier” when he asked a patient from a locality near Montrouis, when she’d last had her period and she casually replied: – “On the last moon”. While he was anticipating an exact date, ignoring when the last moon was or even what that actually means.

It’s not a mere matter of language (French versus Kreyòl) as the concern is raised ad nauseum but instead a collusion between two different cultures, impairing understanding and proper health communication between two people speaking the same language.

These cultural barriers to communication stress the difficulties to assess and address health risks in patients and communities alike. I remember visiting Maniche with a team of Port-au-prince-based health agents. Most of them were hailed from this very Southern locality, and although our job was to raise concern about the safety of a water source, because they used to drink it and were actually baptized in these waters in their youth, it became harder for them to question its quality. The same goes for patients suffering from high blood pressure who dismiss any change in the way they prepare food because they’ve been taught a particular way by a parent since they were kids. Habit is more powerful than science and without the psychological tools of social and behavioral change communication the work of healthcare providers might as well be for naught.

I went back to Karenaj recently. As I sat in furniture that feel older than the city itself, I was thinking that until we reduce the gap between urban and rural realities we will not be able to understand each other, recognize what puts us at risk and heal our common evils. As I thought of my conversation with Annia and the way many pride themselves as educated, I asked myself if we were hardly doing any good. What good is a doctor’s vast knowledge if he can’t even understand his patient, let alone help her improve her behavior? There is not a single way to resolve these differences. But if we at least stop considering distance as difference, maybe we can start learning and improving together.

Standard
Cholera, Global Health, Public Health, Public health concern

A Path to Fighting Cholera in Haiti After Hurricane Matthew

The rain was pouring as the car rolled towards Hinche. Kal and I were leading a team of doctors and researchers on a week-long investigation of factors related to the cholera epidemic in Haiti’s Center department a few weeks ago. As we went along the road, we could only look as far as five meters ahead due to heavy rainfall. I vaguely recalled hearing of a Hurricane Matthew forming in the Atlantic Ocean a few days before. The rain beating down on the area known as the “Bas Plateau” (Southern region of the Center) gave me a glimpse of the massive environmental and health consequences such a hurricane would bring to Haiti. My anxiety increased knowing that this specific department was the first, and one of the most severely, affected by the cholera epidemic ever since it was introduced in Haiti in 2010 due to improper waste management by UN peacekeepers.

Hurricane Matthew mostly devastated Haiti’s Deep South, affecting nearly 80% of homes in Jeremie, a coastal town in Grand Anse. Crops, livestock and drinking water systems also perished. As foreseen by health authorities and the population, outbreaks of cholera, which is endemic in Haiti seem to have quickly risen in several localities of the South peninsula. In light of my experience on the field in the Center, I propose a few strategic insights pertaining to cholera elimination in the aftermath of this disaster.

Decision making and public health interventions are more likely to be successful when they include members of the community served.

That is to say, the people from there who hold an attachment to that particular region, who maintain hope in the face of adversity and challenges as in post-Matthew Haiti. In my opinion, the water and sanitation technicians of the municipalities known as TEPACCs embody this idea. They are residents of the respective communities they serve. Oftentimes university students or local professionals, they are responsible for listing water sources and oversee the management of sanitation structures in the most remote areas of the country. The TEPACCs are widely responsible for the safety of the water consumed by most of the population and ensuring that waste is properly disposed.

These workers are familiar with all the localities and their physical and structural characteristics. During our time in Mirebalais, the TEPACCs Grandin and Cameau,  guided us to the remote areas, and informed us on the unspoken truths of these places where cholera has remained for 6 years. The cholera efforts and results all around the country would be far more effective if they were provided the necessary equipment they often lack such as, motorcycles so they can access remote areas easier, computers and cellphones to facilitate communication. In the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew because so many water sanitation structures have been destroyed, offering more resources to the TEPACCs is crucial.

The epidemic situation in the Center also reveals the vulnerability of specific regions where cholera persists in Haiti. Floods may have worsened the contamination of water sources in the South, as shown by more than four hundred suspected cholera cases, unconfirmed as of this writing. However, the focus should not be taken off previously identified zones of cholera persistence such as specific towns or regions in the North, Center, Artibonite and West even when they were not the strongly affected by Hurricane Matthew. Studies show that these zones of persistence play an important role in re-emergence of cholera during the rainy season because the transmission lingers even during the dry season. The increased cases during the rainy season such as the situation in Randel (South) right now- where an outbreak erupted even before the hurricane- is nothing but a mere consequence of cholera enduring in Haiti for 6 years. So, in addition to the added risk that Hurricane Matthew brought, these preexisting persistence zones remain the pressure points on which our attention should remain if we hope to eliminate Cholera on the island.

The reconstruction of water systems and protection of sources should indeed take into account these towns whose vulnerability have not decreased after Matthew. In Mirebalais, I visited a Cholera Treatment Centre (CTC) where there were more than a hundred cases in the last three days at the time of my visit. An officer of an international organization working with outbreak response teams on the field reminded me that the epidemic had been raging long before the hurricane. It is imperative that we do not forget that.

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

La Theme River. Photo credit: Karolina Griffiths

In such a context, I do not share the opinions of some of my colleagues who dismiss the importance of vaccination, thinking it would be a waste of time, money and energy. As a matter of fact, the World Health Organization pledged one million vaccine doses to Haiti that 500,000 people could benefit from. Vaccinations may not the cure to the epidemic, but they can help save precious time and resources while we focus on strengthening our response capacity to outbreaks, improving access to safe water and sanitation, and educating at-risk populations especially in a post-disaster context. Education is crucial for behavior change, because many still believe that “cholera is spread through the air.” One man told us these words right before he nonchalantly dove in the Artibonite River that visibly contains dirt and sewage from the marketplace, the slaughterhouse and the prison.

The effects of Hurricane Matthew will be long term. The challenges of eliminating cholera by 2022 are uncountable. Based on my experience in research on the determinants of the cholera epidemic in the Center department alone, I foresee the benefits of strengthening the TEPACCs in their role, keeping epidemiologic surveillance in known areas of cholera persistence in Haiti and seizing this opportunity to vaccinate at-risk populations to prevent new cholera infections. This will be a heavy task, but this is a time where we, as a people, cannot afford to sink into fatalism or complacency. Hurricane Matthew is surely a step back, but it is also an opportunity to push Haiti forward towards progress and sustainability.

Read the original version on Woy Magazine

 

Standard
Public health concern, Social Issue

The weight of social approval

During a short break from seeing patients, I was sitting behind the desk, enjoying an appealing novel. In the heart of the neighborhood of Jalouzi, in Petion-ville, the atmosphere was rather comforting, punctuated with laughter of children and chants of street vendors wandering outside. Betty, the nurse in charge of patients’ vital signs laid on the wooden bench in the waiting room looking preoccupied. At some point, she got closer to me and shared her concern: Ever since she started working at the center, she had gained several pounds and feared to have crossed the line of obesity, making her susceptible to the health threats associated with it (mostly cardiovascular diseases).

Betty is a short and curvy, 24 years old woman. She confessed to never doing exercise. Even back when she was at school, the court was too small and physical education wasn’t part of the curriculum. She also grew up in a family where women proud themselves on their thickness. According to her family and peers, it is a mandatory asset to attract a mate.

Generally, clinicians use the Body Mass Index (BMI) to assess the adequacy of weight in patients. This index, designated as indicator of fatness, is a ratio of the weight (kilogram) in relation to the square of the height (meter) of the person. A BMI score equal or greater than 30 is required to classify a person as obese while between 25 and 29.9, he/she is said to be overweight. In 2008, the World Health Organization reported an increase in the number of overweight and obese people, especially in developing countries where 115 million people bear the burden of disease due to obesity. It is important to note because in developing countries, including Haiti, the many health problems co-exist with poverty and a blatant lack of basic education, strengthening the vicious circle. As a consequence, the impact of obesity goes beyond the individual and also affects the State in terms of cost of related diseases.

01

Betty had a BMI at 34; far along in the side of obesity. When I asked about her diet, she told me that she often consumes fried and greasy meals many times a day. Her sedentary lifestyle along with the popular culture that particularly promotes female thickness is also a factor. Other obese patients have even confessed to having resorted to self-medication and other practices to gain weight and develop a body shape, given the social standards, that is valued by most people. Bearing in mind the concept of health as defined by the World Health Organization, self-acceptance undoubtedly has an important role to play in the overall well-being of a person. But self-acceptance is sometimes too tightly dependent on social norms. Therefore isn’t it important in specific cases to question these norms and ideas of beauty that lead to self-flagellation and degradation of the body in the long term?

For instance, let’s go back to the origins of the Body Mass Index used to determine obesity. It was first described in 1832 by a Belgian mathematician and statistician called Adolf Quetelet. After the Second World War, it became crucial to develop a reliable index of normal body weight as the relation between weight and illness and death represented such a shattering concern in the medical world. But the researchers only referred to Anglo-Saxon populations to gather the data. Hence, the ideal Body Mass Index is not quite representative of the every person since African populations among other ethnics had been ignored in the studies. Another bias is that fat is not the only component of body mass. Muscle mass makes it even harder to generalize the obesity measurement standard. As a matter of fact, studies have shown that blacks have lower body fat and higher lean muscle mass than whites, so the same BMI score may lead to less obesity-related diseases. It doesn’t mean that the index per se is useless in African populations but the situation opens doors to further research which may lead to ethnic adjustments. In that vein certain groups have begun to lower cut-off points for the BMI of Asians.

After our exchange, Betty promptly acknowledged the challenge to merge her idea of beauty with her desired state of health. While the prospect of developing a perfectly objective standard for determining obesity and its health risks is still blurry, we need to keep in mind that the perception of beauty itself remains subjective. The balance between what is culturally preferred and what is healthy is also delicate and difficult to reach. Undoubtedly there seems to be a shift of consciousness among young women in Haiti. Hopefully properly designed and culturally tailored health communication campaigns are going to meet them halfway.

Standard
Social Issue

Beneath the Beautiful Bright Paint Covering Jalouzi

This story first appeared on WoyMagazine – Design by EBMD 

I still remember that November morning, Moise Street in Petion-ville was under reconstruction. Dust filled the air and provoked my nose to sneeze multiple times. It was my first day of work as a doctor in Jalouzi. I decided to walk to get there; that was my way of getting to know this colorful neighborhood I knew very little about. All I had in mind were my brother’s quips likening Jalouzi to Kabul by day and New York City by night.

Jalouzi is an impoverished, overpopulated neighborhood, or what the international media would call a slum, in Port-au-Prince with countless houses stacked on top of each other. It is not unlike many other neighborhoods in places like Carrefour feuilles, Carrefour, la plaine etc. The only thing special about Jalouzi is its proximity to Petion-Ville. The view from Petion-Ville’s hotels and bustling restaurants occupied by tourists, expats and the wealthy is none other than the stacked houses of Jalouzi. Ever since the beginning of Jalouzi en couleurs, a government project to paint the houses of Jalouzi in bright colors, a couple of years prior, the slum had caught the world’s attention. So my heart was filled with excitement to experience this side of Haitian life. Almost a year after my experience there, the memories are still vivid in my mind. Yet Jalouzi remains the media’s cherished story, to the extent that RYOT has recently shot a 5-minute documentary short called “The Painter of Jalouzi” for the release of the iPhone 6S Plus of the mega brand Apple. Much to my disappointment, the movie conveys a good bit of misinformation and heavily clashes with the daily reality of Jalouzi.

It took a visit to the archives of Petion-ville’s Town Hall and to the bureau of the civil protection while researching for a book I am writing about Jalouzi to learn that nobody knows the exact number of people actually living there. I realized then that while the bright colors provided the slums with more visibility, the people remained invisible to the State. The people of Jalouzi welcomed the Jalouzi en couleurs government project simply because these people have nothing; they have no choice but to welcome whatever is offered to them. It is no surprise then, that for many of the patients I discussed the project with, healthcare and running water would have been their top priorities if they were given a choice.

Along the Stenio Vincent street in Jalouzi, three health care centers could be counted as of December 2014. But since my first visit, the one that belongs to the Ministry of Health has been closed. Today, its driveway is occupied by vendors, making it difficult to even be noticed. One of the private centers has packed up and the building has been rented to other businesses. Yet the need for healthcare itself has not diminished one bit. On the contrary, in the midst of this situation, various illnesses have arised. Why? Because poverty leaves people extremely vulnerable.

There is no reliable running water in Jalouzi. On the days I reached Jalouzi by foot, I climbed along the slippery steep stairs where women and children carry buckets of water on their heads. Unfortunately, they can only get this water from trucks with water tanks that come once or twice a week, depending on how business is. In the rainy season, there is no clear distinction between the trash and the walkways. Therefore, the soles of people’s feet become public transport for germs which end up straight inside their homes, the stacks of chaotic construction. In the marketplace, food is sold on the floor, meat is covered with flies, the sanitation conditions are dire and precarious.

A mother confessed one day, in the examination room: “All the problems I have go beyond the bright color of my house.” As her issues accumulated, she ran out of money to pay the rent, solely relying on family based in the United States. Her problems, which are closer to the rule rather than the exception, could not be alleviated nor transformed by a paint job. Just as her constant headache did not go away with the makeup she wore that day. Throughout its narration, RYOT’s documentary depicts a delusional image of what life is in Petion-ville’s Jalouzi, which is far from being Haiti’s largest slum, contrary to what they report. Its transformation is only superficial, and the ultimate beneficiaries remain the spectators, foreigners or locals, enjoying the view of Jalouzi’s brightly painted houses from a distance.

In spite of its worldwide reach, “The Painter of Jalouzi” has failed to call for real transformation in people’s lives. To be more accurate, the short film might as well had depicted the real painter of Jalouzi as an outsider. Someone far from the reality of the neighborhood, working in the slums during the day, and returning to relax in his suite at the Royal Oasis Hotel in Petion-Ville at night. This is a missed opportunity to raise awareness on the very real issues of healthcare, education, clean water, energy and human dignity. The government’s Jalouzi en Couleurs project has failed the people of Jalouzi. Why don’t we build schools in the name and memory of Préfète Duffault? Why don’t we push the Ministry of Health reopen its health center? Does it help to apply lipstick to a pig, or to disguise the misery and hunger of the most vulnerable? By blinding ourselves from the suffering of others, one day we might end up being the victims of our own farce.

Standard
Public health concern

Drug resistance: What can we do?

antibyotik-01

Bucket of drugs sold on the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

This article originally appeared on Woy Magazine

Throughout history, mankind has suffered from several devastating epidemics caused by pathogens (disease-causing microbes). Even the bible speaks of the occurrence of epidemics such as leprosy and tuberculosis, millennia ago. Among the deadliest known in history, the plague epidemic, from 1347 to 1351, killed half of the European population. Centuries later, the Spanish flu of 1918-1919 has claimed more lives than World War I. On the American continent, around the same period, the epidemic of polio in the United States has killed 6 000 persons. For many years, Haiti has been known for the spread of deadly microbial epidemics and is still currently fighting one of the highest rates of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS (despite the dropping prevalence) and malaria in the hemisphere.

However, the era of microbial epidemics has observed a halt since the development of antimicrobial drugs begun with the discovery of penicillin, an antibiotic, by Alexander Fleming in 1928. Nonetheless, in his Nobel lecture in 1945, he had to warn: “The time may come when penicillin can be bought by anyone in the shops. Then there is the danger that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.”

Antimicrobial resistance is the fact by which, the pathogens become insensitive to the drugs used to kill them or to inhibit their growth. It is known as a natural phenomenon, but can as well be propelled by humans through overdose and improper use of drugs. In line with Fleming’s projection, antimicrobial resistance is an actual fact and a global health issue especially in our era of globalization and mass commercialization. As a result, in a near future, we may lack the most essential drugs to cure the simplest infections.

How is it today? In its 2014 report, the WHO has revealed that the Influenza A viruses (susceptible to cause the flu) are resistant to all available preventive drugs. Worldwide, 450,000 new cases of resistant tuberculosis have been reported.  And in Africa, resistance to a specific class of drug used in the treatment of AIDS has been observed since 2009. Concerning malaria, several countries on different continents experience some level of resistance to chloroquine (Main drug used in the treatment).

Imagine a world where anybody can die of a single skin cut, where more children under 5 years old die of pneumonia. Imagine a country like Haiti in such a world, with no available drugs to treat malaria and AIDS. Imagine a world where tuberculosis is an incurable disease, where doctors can’t practice surgery -because most of the time, there’s no surgery without antibiotics- and where children die of mother-to-child infections. To avoid such catastrophe, key attitudes are recommended in the face of this new global epidemic of resistance to antimicrobial drugs. Let’s lay down a non exhaustive list of four realistic and reliable precautions we can adopt in Haiti.

Encourage consumption of local foods

Most of the meat consumed in Haiti is imported from the Dominican Republic and the United States. In larger economies, antibiotics are used in animals, despite the advice of the WHO to cease such practices (Press Release WHO/39. September 11, 2001). When a person ingests meat containing antibiotics, they also consume the drug. This improper use of antibiotics contributes to bacterial resistance in humans. As a result, these drugs will lose their ability to produce the desired effect in sick people. The lack of antibiotics is one of the advantages of purchasing local Haitian agriculture. It is, therefore, recommended to consume local foods in order to decrease the spread of antibiotic resistance.

Fight self-medication

Concerned state authorities should take responsibility by enforcing the article 19 of the August 10th, 1955 law forbidding the sale of antibiotics without medical prescriptions. According to a study I conducted in March 2015 at the outpatient clinic of the General Hospital of Port-au-prince, almost half of the patients (45.4% of them) buy their antibiotics without any medical prescription from street vendors tubs, public transport buses and sometimes pharmacies. While we wait for a more modern law on the pharmaceutical sector in Haiti, the one cited above should absolutely be enforced in the meantime.

Typical meds vendor in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Typical meds vendor in the streets of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Practice better medical care

From the doctors, it is required to decrease the careless use of antibiotics and other microbial drugs. The choice of the most accurate drug to treat a specific infection, the appropriate dosage and duration, should be done with the utmost care. In all circumstances, following a well-conducted physical exam, the clinical judgement of doctors need to be accurate. It is best, however, to objectify an ongoing infection before initiating a therapy even if in most of the cases, the medical practice is challenged by the inability of the patients to pay for basic exams. No matter the limitations, it is the doctor’s duty to make the best decisions for their patients and for society as a whole, based on their judgement and scientific evidence.

Increase awareness and health literacy

As it is often said, prevention is better than any cure. It is in the best interest of the general population to increase their awareness of the situation and their health literacy. Unfortunately, in Haiti, information and health education campaigns are only held in times of severe outbreaks, and are transmitted in a language that excludes the majority of the population and fails to take advantage of the best communication channels. Basic health knowledge should to be taught throughout people’s lifetimes, beginning in elementary schools.  IntegrAction, a non-profit organization I co-founded, is totally engaged in this fight for effective health literacy for the Haitian population.

Awareness and a culture-oriented health literacy coupled with the best medical care can make a profound difference, in regard to this alarming situation. The state and local authorities should join their hands to enforce the existing law and encourage the consumption of local foods. With enough political will and global awareness, it is possible to get around the dramatic fate. One behavioral change at a time, let us, Haitians, unite for this cause!

Standard