On Saturday, officials with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, World Health Organization and USAID established a public health surveillance system to begin tracking -- with the aim of preventing -- emerging health threats in some of the 600 camps that are now housing those without homes.You might roll your eyes at the bureaucratic delay of designing an assessment form but in this case a comprehensive form is important, given that volunteers who don't necessarily have medical or public health credentials will be tasked with the gigantic job of monitoring for disease outbreaks.
Public health experts said they fear an outbreak of disease such as measles could cut through the camps rapidly, causing more deaths.
``It's one thing to save someone immediately after the earthquake with surgery, but we don't want them to die two weeks later from bad water,'' said Lise Martel, a public health advisor for the CDC. ``It's not as dramatic as broken bones, but we've got to think long term what we can do to make sure nothing spreads.''
The team has designed assessment forms designed to alert them immediately to potential problems -- and provide information about emerging threats.
``The initial focus had been acute care, trauma and hospital care, but we have people living in settlements and we need to know the conditions,'' said CDC medical epidemiologist Muireann Brennan. ``The next step is an assessment of all those, how are the conditions, the shelter, the food and the water.''
Working with Haiti's Ministry of Health, the groups have identified 31 hospitals and large clinics which will collect and report the data to the CDC. Among the incidences of diseases the survelliance system will monitor is dengue fever, malaria, outbreaks of diarahea that could point to more serious diseases, pneumonia and tyhphoid fever.
Public health authorities would be alerted immediately to a single incident of a communicable disease like measles, but would also track spikes or clusters in ailments such as direha to identify patterns that could signal a problem with a water or food source.
``The bigger the numbers in some of these places, the more of an opportunity to spread disease with people living so close together,'' Brennan said. ``These 31 will serve as sentinel sites, alerting us to problems.''
Brennan said there had been a similar public health system in place in Haiti, but like most of the government, it took a hit in the earthquake.
Dr Sanjay Gupta is not as concerned as some others about a 'second wave' hitting the survivors and I'll pass along his opinion in a later post. But it is a great relief to me (and I'm sure to Dr Gupta, as well) that public health officials are moving fast to get ahead of any infectious-disease outbreak in Haiti's overcrowded tent cities.
The Wall Street Journal's Betsy McKay reported on the issue in her January 22 article Disease, Malnutrition Risks Grow in Haiti and during her interview with John Batchelor on the same day. See the 77 WABC radio website podcast archives for the interview.