Wednesday marks the one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake.
The magnitude 7.0 tremor was the worst to hit the region in more than two centuries, killing over 200,000 people.
Today, more than a million Haitians are still living in tents and improvised shelters, without access to clean water and sanitation facilities.
Washington University professor Lora Iannotti was in Haiti on the day the earthquake struck. She has returned several times since then to continue her research in nutrition and public health.
Before going back to Haiti again last week, Iannotti spoke with St. Louis Public Radio’s Véronique LaCapra about health conditions in this struggling Caribbean nation.
Lora Iannotti has been working in an impoverished urban slum called Fort Saint Michel, on the periphery of the northern Haitian city of Cap-Haïtien. Iannotti said that in Fort Saint Michel, as in much of Haiti, there’s a problem of food insecurity, and also a problem she calls “hidden hunger,” or micronutrient deficiencies.
Iannotti said she’s been frustrated by the response to the earthquake. “Prior to the earthquake we had already a third of the children who were undernourished,” Iannotti said. When people are underweight or malnourished, Iannotti explained, they are at increased risk of dying from health problems like diarrhea.
“Children in Haiti were already dying from diarrhea before the earthquake, because of the water and sanitation conditions,” said Iannotti. She said that in her opinion, immediate attention should have been given to water and sanitation problems after the earthquake, “to prevent what has now happened in Haiti which is the cholera epidemic.”
Iannotti said Haitian children are also continuing to die from diarrheal diseases unrelated to cholera.
She said many Haitians do not have access to clean water. “People are drinking water that’s contaminated with all kinds of pathogens,” Iannotti said, and they’re dependent on water sources like rivers, lakes, and groundwater wells that are “highly contaminated with feces.”
“So it is no surprise whatsoever that this cholera epidemic…was introduced into Haiti,” Iannotti said. And the earthquake exacerbated the problem, said Iannotti, by crowding people together and decreasing access to sanitation facilities.
“And again, these underlying problems like undernutrition and zinc deficiency in particular, are only going to increase the likelihood that people are going to get sick,” Iannotti added.
According to Iannotti, addressing health and nutrition problems in Haiti is going to take a sustained effort that goes beyond emergency aid.
“Initially it’s just human nature to want to help in an emergency situation,” Iannotti said. Following the earthquake, she explained, there was an immediate outpouring of support from the U.S. population toward relief agencies.
“I think what’s needed instead,” Iannotti said, “is a concentration of resources in development.” She said that means addressing difficult problems like poverty.
“The solutions are about education, improving infrastructure, essentially putting our trust in Haitian personnel.” Iannotti said that real improvement can only come with long-term investment in the Haitian people.