The World Health Organization estimates that foodborne illnesses cause two million deaths each year around the world. Haiti is no exception to this global problem; at HAS alone, we admit at least 200 patients every year for diseases caused by unsafe food practices or contaminated water. These diseases have a much more serious impact on populations with poor or fragile health. Infants, young children, pregnant or nursing mothers, and anyone suffering from malnutrition are particularly vulnerable and far more likely to become severely ill or die as a result of food and water-related sicknesses.
Diarrheal diseases are the most common foodborne illnesses, including gastroenteritis, typhoid fever, Hepatitis A and E, and salmonellosis among others. These diseases are common throughout the world, but Haiti in particular faces an even larger problem from the cholera outbreak that began in 2010. Cholera spreads through contaminated water, which can easily infect or contaminate food if not handled correctly.
In honor of 2015’s World Food Day theme, “Food Safety,” here are some steps that HAS takes each and every day to deal with these foodborne diseases:
- Prevention: As with so much of what we do at HAS, we go beyond treatment of an illness to addressing and preventing its causes by empowering people in the community with the knowledge they need to improve their own health. Our community health workers reach nearly 10,000 community members per month with messages addressing the root causes of ill health, often emphasizing the importance of safe food practices. We focus on hygiene practices like washing hands and food with clean water before preparation, which can greatly reduce the spread of foodborne disease. Additionally, our agroforestry technicians speak with farmers about safe use of pesticides, and our water, sanitation and hygiene department conducts dozens of group education sessions per year with community members.
- Treatment: Given the sanitation challenges in Haiti, food-borne illness is a significant risk for our patients. For the low-income agricultural laborers that make up a significant portion of our service area’s population, any time spent away from their work can make an enormous difference in their ability to provide for their families. Doctors work as quickly as possible to identify cases and treat them with appropriate medications to ensure that patients regain their health and continue with their normal activities.
- Care: HAS takes a holistic approach to food health. In the hospital’s malnutrition unit, for example, we teach food safety to mothers and caregivers of our young patients. In addition to illness-causing microbes, heavy metals and other naturally occurring toxins can contaminate food and cause long-term health problems. To prevent this, HAS ensures that all therapeutic foods used to treat malnutrition come from trustworthy sources. Doctors and community healthcare workers also emphasize the importance of follow-up care with each patient after an illness to ensure best results.