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A Canadian soldier carries supplies as troops arrive at a temporary medical centre in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Saturday.

Doctors, nurses and volunteers are struggling to treat the thousands of people injured in last week's earthquake in Haiti, where the medical challenges are just beginning.

Health workers who've arrived from other countries are now struggling to make a dent in treating Haitians who are injured, sick, thirsty, hungry and exhausted.

 

"These people haven't seen a doctor for four or five days," said Rene Steinhauer, a volunteer medic from the United States who is treating wounds and broken bones. "They've already gotten infected."

The injured are at high risk for tetanus infections, as well as complications such as gangrene that may require amputations. But there is a shortage of surgeons, clean water, alcohol for disinfecting purposes and medical equipment.

Outbreaks of bacterial and viral infections associated with unsafe food and water are to be expected, particularly with the crowded conditions, said Dr. Pierre Plourde, an infectious disease specialist in Winnipeg who regularly works in Haiti and is getting ready to return.

"Diarrheal diseases are going to be a big issue," Plourde said. "Typhoid fever has been a problem lately. That can only go up."

Painkillers needed

The immediate concern for health workers is to try to alleviate the pain and suffering, but they are hampered by a lack of equipment and medicine.

At its warehouse in Mississauga, Ont., the relief group Health Partners International of Canada is collecting needed medical supplies for Haiti, including:

  • Painkillers.
  • Antibiotics.
  • Rehydration salts.
  • Bandages.

"The greatest need is for analgesics and antibiotics," for pain relief and infections, said Wes Robinson, the group's director of operations and emergency response.

The medical supplies and personnel are starting to trickle in. But the poverty that existed in Haiti before the earthquake is complicating efforts. Prior to the earthquake, only half of Haitians had access to basic health care and malnutrition is widespread, meaning people will still be susceptible to disease and illness for days and weeks.