Haiti Earthquake Poses Health Crisis for Impoverished Nation

Dr. Richard Besser calls the first 36 hours critical for aid.

ByABC News via GMA logo
January 13, 2010, 8:38 AM

Jan. 13, 2010— -- The devastating earthquake in Haiti only adds to the humanitarian crisis in a nation where 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty line. It's too soon to know just how serious the situation will become following Tuesday's 7.0 magnitude earthquake, but ABC News' senior health and medical editor Dr. Richard Besser said the rescue and recovery effort would be especially complicated and difficult.

The Caribbean nation already has "some of the worst health indicators in the world," Besser said, and has a limited ability to absorb this kind of a catastrophe. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, and the population of 9 million already faces high rates of tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, viral and respiratory disease.

According to the U.S. Agency for International Development, Haiti has the highest per capita tuberculosis burden in the Latin American and Caribbean region. After HIV/AIDS, TB is the country's greatest infectious cause of mortality.

Besser said that a hospital ship en route to the region would be one of the most important parts of the aid effort, because Haiti's health care capacity was already very limited, and one hospital was flattened in the quake.

The first priority is always search and rescue, Besser said, and the focus will be on reaching the injured and saving those who can be saved. "The initial 36 hours are critical," he said, adding that difficulty in getting rescue and recovery teams on the ground quickly is "the norm."

"Communities tend to have to take care of themselves" in the first few days, he said.

Haiti's proximity to the United States makes it easier to get help there quickly, as opposed to the long delays in getting aid across the Pacific Ocean after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake, which left about 23,000 dead.

The ABC News medical unit spoke to a number of recovery agencies, and Besser said all are asking, "How do we get into Haiti? How do we provide those resources? Each part of the U.S. government is rostering teams."

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