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Craig and Marc Kielburger Headshot

Efforts in Haiti need to be long-term

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We spoke with a grandmother in Port-au-Prince about one week after the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit Haiti.

She had white hair and wore a handmade top with a pleated skirt. Despite the exhaustion that appeared through the lines on her face, she kept a watchful eye over a number of small children.

"I already told them not to go back inside, never ever to go back," she said. "I also told them that if an aid truck ever comes here that everyone needs to react calmly. Across the street they jumped on the truck and now the aid won't come here."

The kids who received this advice were mostly orphans. Some had been disconnected from parents who were at work when the tremors started and couldn't find them amidst the mass exodus. Others had lost their families entirely.

The grandmother told us that neighbours were taking care of them. They feed them as best they can with what little is available, give them a place to sleep and make sure they are safe. It's an informal foster network that has been set up through each camp we visited for internally displaced persons.

Children are most vulnerable in this crisis. Prior to the disaster, Haiti already had the highest rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality in the western hemisphere. On a previous visit to the country, we saw three babies to a crib in an orphanage because they were so malnourished.

Knowing this we have to wonder what will happen to them. Once the immediate short-term crisis has passed, will they find a permanent home to live? Will they receive an education? What kind of country will be awaiting them in adulthood?

The immediate response for Haiti by the international community has been remarkable. But, as we witnessed in hospitals, orphanages and makeshift camps across the country, this crisis is going to extend well beyond urgent need.

Already, there is only enough dressing to treat wounds one time. There simply aren't enough to attend to cleanings. As well, antibiotics that help stave off infection are in short supply.

No one embodied this need more than a boy named Ti Komik. He had long been a member of a street youth center in the coastal town of Jacmel run by our friends and colleagues. Ti Komik was born HIV positive and needed anti-retroviral therapy to treat the disease.

For ARVs to be effective, a patient needs to take the drug every day. Missing a dose can cause the virus to build up immunity. That can in turn mean a death sentence.

In the immediate days following the earthquake, we became concerned Ti Komik wasn't receiving this life-saving medication. Through an appeal, we were able to secure the drugs. But, in the coming months he will need the proper nutrition to keep him healthy. In the coming years, he will need rebuilt hospitals to ensure he is receiving care.

Given our extensive ties to the country, it's North America that will be instrumental in helping Haitians rebuild in the coming weeks, months and years. Unlike during the tsunami, Haiti doesn't have profitable resorts that companies will rebuild. It doesn't have a large population of expatriates around the world, ready to send money home.

When we have finished treating the immediate medical needs of the injured, access to treatment must be built so children do not die of preventable illness. Rather than only cleaning up the rubble of a collapsed school, we need to ensure that kids return and receive an education.

What we are witnessing today in Haiti is truly a tragedy. Worse would be if we allowed it to continue.