The current tragedy in Haiti may turn out to be one of the worst natural disasters (if not the worst) the Western Hemisphere has seen in the post-colonial era. Immediate deaths caused directly by trauma from the quake itself will likely number in the tens of thousands but we can be pretty sure that there’s more horror to come. This is a tragedy which is going to continue for months—probably years—to come. Science-based medicine has taught us much about how to mitigate disasters such as this one. Unfortunately, in Haiti medicine is only part of the problem; the long-standing political and economic problems have helped limit what medicine can do. But even in the most troubled of countries, attitudes toward science-based medicine can have profound effects on the health of the population.  We in the U.S. still wield an enormous power over health policy in other countries. We have managed to insert our religious ideologies into other nations’  HIV prevention and treatment strategies via foreign aid policies.  American individuals, such as HIV-denialist Peter Duesberg, have influenced foreign leaders in making disastrous health policy decisions.  When the South African government bought into AIDS denialism, tens to hundreds of thousands died. The anti-vaccination movement has the potential to cause much more damage (and by “damage” I mean death and suffering). If the anti-vaccination crowd increases their influence, they can not only injure more Americans, but also those in other countries who are already suffering quite enough. CBell1809One of the coming tragedies in Haiti will be widespread illness and death from vaccine-preventable diseases. A terrifying example is tetanus. Tetanus is a disease caused by the bacterium Clostridium tetani. These bacteria live in most soils, especially rich soils, and can easily infect small wounds. Once the infection takes hold, the bacteria produce a potent toxin responsible for most of the symptoms of the disease.  These symptoms include horrifying muscle spasms, including jaw spasms which give the disease its other name, “lock-jaw”. And it is a horrifying disease, affecting adults with even minor wounds, and babies, who can become infected at the site of their umbilical cord. The disease is frightening, causing uncontrollable muscle spasms resulting in death in nearly 100% of untreated cases. Even when treated, tetanus has a very high mortality rate, and given that tetanus tends to be more common in areas with less access to treatment, the impact is doubly felt. Neonatal tetanus is a dreadful disease, doubly so because it is so easily prevented. When mothers are vaccinated neonates are protected by passage of antibodies to the fetus in utero. Due mainly to political and economic conditions, tetanus vaccination rates in Haiti are low (about 50% in children). Previous similar disasters, such as the Kashmir earthquake and the Indian Ocean tsunami have showed us that tetanus is a special problem after natural disasters. neonatal_tetanus In developed nations such as the U.S. and the U.K., anti-vaccine movements have caused outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases.  If anti-vaccination activists succeed in influencing the policies of the U.S. and other governments—as other fringe health activists have done—they may become morally complicit in the deaths of thousands of Haitians.  We must remain vigilant to protect our neighbors from our less knowledgeable citizens. Meanwhile, Haiti needs cash.  There are many organizations that are already on the ground helping.  Here is a brief list (one that is not in any way endorsed by SBM or it’s editors and writers other than myself):

Posted in: Science and Medicine

Leave a Comment (25) ↓

25 thoughts on “Haiti

  1. Plonit says:

    Glad to see you writing about Haiti.

    I would add to your list also

    Partners in health

  2. DLC says:

    I knew this would be a horror show from the moment I heard about it. The people of the United States will donate millions by the time it’s all over, and it will not be over for months yet.
    And when it’s all said and done, it won’t have been enough, and the blame game will commence. What was it… “no good deed goes unpunished” ?

  3. Joe says:

    Many of the usual aid agencies have had their headquarters destroyed and their staffs decimated. There is a group of doctors and hospitals in rural Haiti that, reportedly, remains intact and is responding. The are Partners in Health and they are taking donations.

  4. KathyO says:

    Tens of thousands dead from being buried in rubble with no food or water is bad enough, but to haul them out and have them die of tetanus?!?

    My tetanus vaccine info is a bit rusty (ducking), but would it help to vaccinate people as they’re rescued?

  5. lizditz says:

    Here’s what the homeopaths are saying

    If there was a system in place where the U.N., The Red-Cross, Oxfam and other aid agencies were trained and supplied with homeopathic remedies, books and care kits there could be assistance using Emergency Homeopathy.

    A circle in hell for them, I say.

    Waiting to see what the “autism = vaccine injury” crowd has to say about the suffering & death caused by low vaccine uptake.

  6. Peter Lipson says:

    Thank you, Liz for pointing that out.

  7. Fifi says:

    Dr Lipsom – Thank you very much for writing about this. Please DO donate to DoctorsWithoutBorders, they’re providing very needed medicine and urgent medical help. Also, can Americans please call their government and insist that medical missions be given priority. DWB/MSF have had trouble with being allowed to land, it’s the US military that’s in control of the airports. It’s also very important that America not use this tragedy for political opportunism – particularly in light of the American involvement with the coup there and previous political interference that has not served the people of Haiti well at all.

    If people have clothes or food they’d like to donate, I’d suggest donating them to local food banks and charities. (Right now what is needed is medical help and fresh water so please donate money so these can be provided.) Particularly in big cities in North America and Europe, a lot of refugees and immigrants need help too, as do all the poor during the winter months which are particularly hard when you’re poor.

  8. nitpicking says:

    I’ve already donated via Richard Dawkins’ Non-Believers Giving Aid. Money donated there is split between Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross. Dawkins himself covers the PayPal fees out of his pocket, so 100% of monies donated go to the actual charities.

  9. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    Thank you for writing this.

    lizditz – that is horrifying. Emergency homeopathy? It is amazing how little these people understand about the harm they are doing.

  10. Mark Crislip says:

    The American Red Cross has received more than $22 million in U.S. text-message donations for Haiti earthquake relief efforts, far outpacing the charity’s previous record of $400,000 for emergency relief using similar technology.

    The $22 million is roughly one-fifth of the $112 million total that the American Red Cross has so far raised for Haiti, most of which has come through more conventional sources such as corporate and online donations.

    The text-messaging effort involves sending the word “Haiti” in a cellphone text message to the number 90999, which automatically adds a $10 pledge to a person’s phone bill.

  11. DrRachie says:

    Here’s what the Australian (anti) Vaccination Network have to say about your silly vaccines. From their president, Meryl Dorey.

    Hi all,

    This is a sort-of off-topic question. I would like to donate to the efforts to help in Haiti but I don’t want ANY of my money going towards vaccines so that red cross and Unicef are out. Does anyone know of an organisation doing work on the ground there helping without vaccines? I want to provide food, clean water,
    education, housing – but not drugs (and I’m sure there are others here who want to do the same).

    Thanks so much for your direction and for those with friends and family in the
    affected area, my sympathies go out to you and I hope all of your loved ones are

    All the best,
    Meryl Dorey,
    National President
    The Australian Vaccination Network, Inc.
    Investigate before you vaccinate
    Living Wisdom Magazine
    Family, Health, Environment
    PO Box 177
    Phone: 02 6687 1699 – FAX 02 6687 2032
    skype: ivmmag



  12. David Gorski says:

    What a lovely woman. She doesn’t want any of her money going towards vaccines and medicine for the Haitian people, even though one of the biggest killers of survivors is likely to be infectious disease, which could be treated with antibiotics. How nice.

    What a moron.

  13. Scott says:

    I’d rather see her donating to an organization that will use it to provide food, water, and shelter than not donating at all. As long as the money actually goes to SOMETHING useful (and not e.g. to promoting Emergency Homeopathy) it’s a good thing!

  14. Yvi says:

    My tetanus vaccine info is a bit rusty (ducking), but would it help to vaccinate people as they’re rescued?

    Yes, it would, even if they are already infected. Tetanus can be treated by vaccinating in the early stages of the disease (that’s why if you have an animal bite, doctors will often vaccinate you) and in the later stages, injecting tetanus immunoglobulin into the spinal canal helps. Not sure how applicable that later step is, but at least the usual vaccination is something that I hope the helpers in Haiti are able to do.

  15. Zoe237 says:

    Wow, that letter was something else. My take that the economics behind supplying vaccinations to low income people is a much bigger problem than anti-vaccine people in this country may very well be wrong. That really drives home the danger for an original skeptic. Scary.

  16. Fifi says:

    Some of the challenges faced by doctors in Haiti (which has a high rate of HIV infection)…

  17. lizditz says:

    On the homeopaths & Haiti — Dr. Gorski’s friend Orac has just put up a post on the appalling lack of ethics in testing homeopathy in developing countries

  18. lizditz says:

    Here’s another vomit-inducing one from the homeopaths

    @Blue_Wode There is no need for tetanus injection. We have homeopathic medicine Ledum Pal, which is also given in pregnancy to ladies #ten23


  19. lexicakes says:

    Emergency homeopathy?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist.

    On a more serious note, it hadn’t even occurred to me that the Homeopaths and vaccine denialists would be ready to “help” with all their nonsense. I guess if the Scientologists are already there, we can only expect more quackery to impede relief in Haiti. Thanks for the information on where to donate! I’ve been looking for sources to make the best use of my contribution.

  20. I have emailed Meryl Dorey. I do not expect a reply

    Dear Ms Dorey,

    I have been told that you won’t donate to organisations providing relief to the people of Haiti if the relief includes the supply of drugs. As many people were injured in the earthquake, does your antipathy to drugs include the anaesthetics needed for emergency surgery, painkillers such as morphine, antibiotics and antiseptics? If so, what are the natural remedies you recommend be used in their place?

    Thank you.

  21. SunkenShip says:

    I could barely get through this post. There weren’t any real paragraph breaks, it jumped all over the place and the images were poorly placed.

    While the topic of Haiti and the reality of tetanus infection is a worthy topic of debate, it is flimsily leveraged to denounce and attack anti-vaxers and the conclusion is absolutely illogical. No health organization is anywhere near recommending against routine vaccination. If anti-vaxers succeed in influencing policy change it will be long after this tragic ordeal in Haiti.

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