January 21st 2010
Even before the earthquake, travelers to Haiti were advised to consult with an expert in Travel Medicine. The new situation has significantly increased the risk for a variety of infectious diseases – both common and “exotic.” Needless to say, there are many health risks which are not related to infection – excessive heat and sun exposure, political violence, psychological trauma, etc.
Clearly, the most common problems will be related to contamination of food and water: dysentery, salmonellosis and other forms of gastroenteritis. Cholera is not currently encountered in Haiti. There is no vaccine for these diseases, and preventative measures (if possible) will include adequate heating of food, bottled water, etc. Many experts would also suggest that the traveler carry antibiotics (Azithromycin or Ciprofloxacin) to be taken in the event of symptoms.
Among the food / water-borne diseases, Hepatitis A (and possibly Hepatitis E) and typhoid constitute a genuine risk. All travelers should be vaccinated as far in advance as possible before embarking for Haiti. Several food borne parasitic infections are also common in Haiti.
The rate of AIDS in Haiti is particularly high. Although most HIV infection in Haiti has been acquired through sex, exposure to blood will now become a major risk factor.
Malaria is endemic to 75% of Haiti. Although the local parasite strain is often associated with severe illness, and even death, it is sensitive to anti-malarial drugs. People traveling to Haiti should take two tablets of Choroquine, once weekly. Another common mosquito-borne disease, dengue, can only be prevented by vigorous use of insect repellents. Such measures might also prevent a number of local exotic parasitic diseases (Wuchereriasis, Mansonelliasis).
Animal contact should also be avoided – rabies, anthrax and other “zoonoses” are not uncommon in this country.
Contrary to common belief, contact with dead bodies is not considered a health risk. A person who did not have cholera or typhoid in life will not begin to spread these diseases because she has died.
Anyone returning from Haiti should arrange for a stool examination – even if they feel well. Parasitic infestation is not necessarily associated with symptoms. Needless to say, if fever, diarrhea, headache or any other symptom of infection develops, a physician should be consulted.
Also check out GIDEON’s free ebook: Infectious Diseases of Haiti