Haiti health chief calls for urgent shelter

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan. 31 (AFP) – Haitian Health Minister Alex Larsen said the government is "moving as fast as possible" to shelter quake-hit refugees ahead of heavy rains due as soon as next month that could trigger a public health disaster.

"There's discussion going on right now on how to deal with this issue quick enough," Larsen told AFP after a briefing Saturday by World Health Organization (WHO) officials about the influx of desperately-needed medical supplies.

Children sit in their shelter at a makeshift camp in Port-au-Prince. AFP photo

The UN has warned that if heavy rains arrive -- perhaps as early as mid-February -- while as many as a million Haitians are still homeless it could provoke a public health catastrophe, spreading disease through dense, insanitary makeshift encampments.

The disaster left over 170,000 people dead -- including thousands of bodies still rotting under the mountains of debris, increasing the risk of contamination especially if heavy rains soak through the tangled ruins.

The beleaguered government, struggling to cope after the massive 7.0-magnitude earthquake destroyed much of the capital and surrounding areas, has set up "a commission to deal with this exact problem -- they met this morning," Larsen said, declining to provide further details.

Hundreds of thousands of people in the capital have since the January 12 quake been sheltering in squalid encampments in city parks.

The minister said it was necessary to ensure "better sanitation (in the camps) to prevent the emergence of communicable diseases," saying such a development was "the biggest concern for the government of Haiti."

Haiti's wet season usually starts in May, but storms could come earlier.

Larsen said the government anticipated "a small rain season" ahead of the full season around the time of normally joyous Carnival celebrations in mid-February -- now cancelled due to the cataclysmic quake.

"I believe the biggest problem right now is people sleeping in the street," Larsen said, standing amid crate-loads of medical aid at the PROMESS (Program on Essential Medicines and Supplies) warehouse, Haiti's main medical storage and distribution facility near the international airport.

"We're moving as fast as possible" to deal with this issue, Larsen insisted, after the WHO briefing in which he praised the amount of foreign medical aid arriving in the country from around the world.

Haiti's President Rene Preval urged earlier this week for the foreign donors to send 200,000 tents to house families left homeless before rainfall blights relief plans.

Larsen, lamenting security issues around aid drops as desperate residents scramble for supplies, noted that "food is being distributed, water is being distributed, but in a bit of a disorderly way."

The government needs to "get things organized more systematically, because some get plenty, while others get nothing." He suggested more security from UN troops would help with distribution.

The UN World Food Program said it would open 16 fixed collection sites across the capital on Sunday in a bid to reduce long and often chaotic food lines at mobile handouts.

Only women will be allowed to enter the sites to pick up supplies using coupons. Many of handouts have turned into dangerous scrums where women and children are shoved aside, said an WFP spokesman.

Haitian authorities are also trying to ensure the provisional camps don't become permanent, "because when people get used to being provided services they didn't have before, it's difficult... If people are comfortable where they are, they aren't going to move," Larsen said.

President Preval made a rare public appearance at the ruins of his National Palace on Saturday and was promptly heckled by people who on seeing him gathered around the gates of the collapsed building.

"Preval has done nothing for us since the quake," "Preval doesn't talk to the people," a group of young protesters shouted after seeing the president.

The president "should put young people at work. If they don't have jobs, what else can they do?" asked 20-year-old Herbie.

"He could at least lower the price of staples, because the aid won't last forever," John Bernis chimed in angrily.

Both men said they were earthquake victims and suggested Jean-Bertrand Aristide could have done a better job helping people, referring to a former Catholic priest who served three times as Haiti's president before going into exile in 2004.

Source: AFP

Other news