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More deaths feared when foreign medics leave Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Foreign doctors treating earthquake victims at Haiti’s general hospital are deeply worried many of their patients will die after they leave.

U.S. Army soldiers check the paper that the U.N. gave to residents for them to receive groceries during a food distribution in downtown Port-au-Prince January 31, 2010. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

They only have to look at a pile of rubble next door to witness the magnitude of the health crisis facing Haiti.

More than 100 dead Haitian nursing students are buried under tons of cement bricks turned to dust and twisted bars, the remnants of a five-story nursing school that collapsed when the 7.0 magnitude quake hit Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12.

A crushed blue school bus with its “National School of Nursing” sign in yellow letters is clearly visible. They can also see rows of collapsed lockers teetering from a second floor. A lab coat still hangs in one.

People working at the hospital said the unintended graveyard in the rubble smelled for a long time, a reminder of the terrible challenges that lie ahead for Haiti’s hospitals, many of which were destroyed in the quake.

After the disaster that killed as many as 200,000 people, teams of doctors flooded into Haiti from all over the world, including specialized surgeons with high-tech equipment to operate on amputated limbs.

But most rotate out after a week or two of emergency service, returning their patients to a medical system which was already weak and crumbling before the quake.

“I think many of (the patients) will die,” said David Ansell, an internal medicine specialist from Rush University Medical Center working in Port-au-Prince’s general hospital.

“I have to discharge people and they have to go live in a tent in front of the palace,” he said.

Several hundred thousand quake survivors are sleeping outdoors under tents and sheets in improvised refugee camps that carpet all available open spaces in the devastated city.

The U.S. military halted medical evacuations to the United States this week in a dispute over where to treat the patients and who should pay, raising fears some patients who would benefit from treatment abroad would also now die.

At the general hospital in the center of Port-au-Prince hundreds of patients lie in cots in tents in the patio, some connected to IV drips or dialysis machines with relatives fanning them to try to keep them cool.

The most serious cases are housed inside in a dark building with cracked walls where patients lie naked or half covered in crowded rooms. Doctors wearing T-shirts from Spain, France, Brazil and the United States check on their condition.


Alix Lassegue, the general hospital’s director, said that along with the dead nurses, eight doctors were killed and many fled to other parts of the country after their homes collapsed. He said only half of the staff was coming to work.

“I see (the foreign doctors) working on patients and they do it fast, but when they leave there will be no more good service,” said Jimmy, who lost his 10-year-old child, his wife and his mother when his house was destroyed in the earthquake. He was offered a job at the hospital moving patients on cots.

There is no official figure of how many Haitian medical staff died in the disaster, Health Minister Alex Larsen said in an interview.

Larsen said the government was encouraging patients who had relatives in the countryside to move in with them. He hoped some 3,000 could be transferred to rural areas and said local doctors would check up on them.

The real risks could come in the following months as sick people, some with infected wounds, returned to crowded camps.

“There are risks in the camps of drug-resistant tuberculosis and AIDS, since existing patients may have lost their medications. People will fall through the cracks and there will be a lot more deaths,” said Richard Wenzel, an infectious disease expert working in Haiti.

Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Alan Elsner