Preparing for Humanitarian Missions in Haiti

Doctor with Peacework Medical Projects in Ranquitte, Haiti.

I have been seeing more and more patients lately in our travel clinic on their way to participate in humanitarian and medical missions to serve the people of Haiti. What a wonderful opportunity they have to make a difference in people’s lives, and change their own lives in the process.

Haiti remains a popular destination for nonprofit and service organizations. On our doorstep is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, still rebuilding from the effects of a devastating earthquake in 2010, that caused widespread damage to critical infrastructure. Travel advisories have relaxed since the disaster, but visitors still need to exercise a high level of caution and preparedness.

Travelers’ diarrhea remains the most common infectious disease in visitors to Haiti. The country is experiencing an ongoing outbreak of cholera; a serious and sometimes fatal gastrointestinal disease spread from contaminated water and food. A vaccine to prevent cholera is not currently available in the United States but travelers can lower their risk of illness by following strict food and water precautions. All visitors to Haiti should also receive a typhoid vaccine and have antibiotics with them for self treatment if they do get sick.

The Caribbean is well known for its pleasant climate, which also makes it home to many mosquito-borne diseases. Malaria is a serious disease endemic throughout Haiti but the risk of getting it can be reduced by taking preventive medication, such as chloroquine. Mosquitoes also transmit Dengue and Chikungunya disease which cause high fever and severe illness. Unlike malaria, there is no medication available to treat these diseases. The use of insect repellant and protective clothing is the best preventive strategy to avoid the bites of mosquitoes and other insects.

Haiti’s population, as in many developing countries, has low rates of vaccination and many diseases like measles and chickenpox still occur. Visitors should be up to date with routine immunizations including MMR (mumps, measles and rubella), chickenpox and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis). The Hepatitis A and Hepatitis B vaccines are also highly recommended. These require several shots in a series and should be started at least four to six weeks prior to departure.

The U.S. State Department “urges U.S. citizens to exercise caution when visiting Haiti given Haiti’s weak emergency response infrastructure,” and notes that “medical facilities, including ambulance services, are particularly weak.” In case of medical emergency, all travelers to Haiti should obtain evacuation insurance and are encouraged to use organizations that have solid evacuation and medical support options in place.

The experience of visiting Haiti as part of a humanitarian mission can be harsh and overwhelming but the people are welcoming and appreciative. The rewards are immeasurable and many people find themselves returning again and again.