Medical teams fight Mitch disease threat

BY PJ HELLER | POSOLTEGA, Nicaragua | December 9, 1998

POSOLTEGA, Nicaragua (Dec. 9, 1998) -- Sitting on the side of a volcano

where her village once stood, a Nicaraguan woman gently cradles a newborn

baby in her arms.

The infant is red and feverish with pneumonia, as are about 20 other

children who have had no food, no water and no shelter.

Without the care provided by volunteer medical teams working throughout

Central America in the wake of Hurricane Mitch, the chances of survival for

the infant -- as well as countless others of all ages -- would have been slim

at best.

As it is, medical brigades from countless faith-based and secular

organizations are struggling to help people suffering from malaria, dengue

fever, cholera, diarrhea, leptospirosis and other infectious and

respiratory diseases. Reaching people who live in isolated rural areas has

been another challenge facing the medical teams, often requiring them to

travel by either helicopter, canoe or four-wheel-drive vehicles.

"There are no long-term solutions yet," said Joe Dorn, a physician from

Inverness, FL, who recently helped Christian Commission for Development

(CCD) treat patients. "We're just putting Band-Aids on the problems. That's

all we can do for now."

Agencies such as Church World Service (CWS) have been arranging for air and

sea shipments of millions of dollars worth of health kits and medical

supplies to assist survivors of Hurricane Mitch. The first team of CWS

medical personnel, consisting of two doctors and four nurses, arrived in

Honduras in late November. Other groups, including the Adventist

Development and Relief Agency and Doctors Without Borders, also have

medical teams throughout Latin America.

In Honduras, a country described by Health Minister Marco Antonio Rosa as

"one big puddle" perfect for breeding grounds for mosquito-borne diseases

such as malaria, the cost of implementing a health program has been

estimated at $18 million.

With many of the fresh water supplies and sewage disposal systems wiped out

by the storm and villages covered by mud, health issues have moved to the

forefront in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador and Belize.

"...Health conditions continue to deteriorate in the wet environment;

fungal skin infections are now widespread," the CCD noted in a late

November dispatch from Honduras.

The World Health Organization (WHO), in its latest report from Central

America, reported that cholera epidemic activity in the five countries

affected by Hurricane Mitch was at the highest risk in Guatemala.

A leptospirosis epidemic -- a disease spread by rodents that causes liver

and kidney failure -- was reported primarily in Nicaragua. At least seven

people have died from the disease in that country.

Cuba has sent a team of leptospirosis specialists to San Pedro Sula in

Honduras to assist health officials there.

"Public health officials loudly warned citizens not to come into contact

with mud, a nearly impossible feat in many areas," the CCD reported.

"Vaccination and fumigation campaigns are under way in several areas.

Cadavers are still being exhumed; several have been uncovered in the last

few days in hard-hit Bajo Aguan, in the department of Colon. The huge lake

of stagnant water in the Choluteca River in downtown Tegucigalpa is being

drained more quickly after shrimp companies brought in two giant pumps. The

putrid water has posed a serious health threat to people in the center of

the capital city."

A dengue epidemic was reported in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and El

Salvador. Honduras and Nicaragua reported the presence of hemorrhagic

dengue, according to WHO.

Disease could drive the death toll from Mitch even higher. The latest

revised figures show the killer storm left more than 9,200 people dead.

Hardest hit was Honduras, where officials now say 5,657 people died and

another 8,000 are missing. Nicaragua reported 3,045 people killed.

Chris Herlinger of Church World Service said Hurricane Mitch exacerbated

medical problems that already existed throughout Central


"I would just underline that this is just making chronic problems worse,"

said Herlinger, who recently returned from a visit to Central America.

Dr. Joyce Baker, who has spent more than 30 years working in Honduras with

United Church of Christ, agreed the storm made a bad situation even


"People in the villages really kind of live on the edge of disaster

normally as far as their health care and their general situation," said

Baker, who was cutting short a six-month furlough in the U.S. to return to


The woman with the newborn in Posoltega is a good case in point. Although

her husband was killed in the mudslide and her village was destroyed, she

refused to leave the side of volcano to get care for her baby.

"I am afraid to leave," she tells a physician with Doctors Without Borders.

"I want to stay where I was born."

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