Since 1996, training courses on “Management of Disasters: Focus on Children” have been conducted annually at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. In June 2005, three Haitian pediatricians – Dr. Luisa Oriol, Dr. Patrick Hilaire, and I – were invited to be a part of that training, with the goal of replicating such a program in Haiti.
But for many reasons, the replication could not be done then. Little did we know that we all would have to face the catastrophic fallout of the Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake. We were neither prepared for the aftermath, nor did we have the skills to deal with it.
Within 2 months after that devastating earthquake, the members of the Haitian Pediatric Society felt the need to have all pediatric health care professionals trained in emergency preparedness. This would allow them to offer optimal care to patients, and would provide them with the most current and reliable information on emerging health threats. Ensuring prompt and efficient medical care to children is a priority to lessen the symptoms of posttraumatic stress disorder.
On June 2010, in the backyard of the Jesuit seminary located in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Félicité Chatel-Katz, program director of the Rainbow Center for Global Child Health in Cleveland, along with a volunteer health provider met with four members of the executive board of the Haitian Pediatric Society to discuss the feasibility of holding a workshop on psychosocial assistance in Haiti. (See photo.) There was a pressing need to help overcome the traumatic events that affected children so cruelly and was threatening their psychological well-being and development.
In March 2011, the Haitian Pediatric Society was finally able to hold that first workshop (“Psychological Support for Child Victims of Disasters”), with the collaboration of Case Western Reserve University, the nonprofit organization Health Frontiers, and the International Pediatric Association. The 3-day event in Port-au-Prince was designed to educate the attending pediatricians, psychologists, social workers, school principals, and teachers on ways to address postdisaster consequences.
The main objectives were for the participants to be able to do the following:
- Identify the special needs of children in postdisaster situations.
- Be familiar with how developmental stages can affect the coping mechanisms of children.
- Be familiar with the long-term consequences of disasters on children.
- Identify the important elements of good psychosocial program “child centeredness.”
- Describe the role and limitations of assessment in disaster response.
- Describe the need for rapid assessment of mental health in disasters.
One of the most important lessons we learned was that only a team approach can make a difference. The makeup of the team must be diverse in both training and capacity; this will enhance its ability to respond in a concerted effort to address the needs of the population, whether it is pediatric or otherwise.
Another important lesson was that a child’s health and well-being cannot wait until tomorrow. Emergency planning is the cornerstone of readiness for timely and successful interventions.
Considerable work remains to be done. The Haitian Pediatric Society will continue the fight against the lack of preparedness in times of disaster, and hopes to provide much-needed, continual training throughout the year to its personnel, colleagues, and associates to keep everyone in a state of readiness.
Dr. Pothel Ovile is a pediatrician at the State University of Haiti, Port-au-Prince, and the executive director of the Haitian Pediatric Society.