Students, faculty left country only hours before quake

Eight students and a faculty member from the University of Colorado Denver left Haiti only hours before the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that shook the island nation.

Blair Gifford, PhD,  associate professor of international health management at the UC Denver Business School  and Colorado School of Public Health as well the founder and associate director of the Center for Global Health, was with eight of his students studying health systems development and management in Haiti from Jan. 2 through Jan. 12. The eight students who accompanied Gifford on the two-week graduate MBA course to Haiti are working toward MBA degrees in health administration at UC Denver’s Business School. Many are interested in health management careers in the developing world.

Gifford, one of 10 New Century Fulbright Scholars for the 2009/10 academic year, has been to Haiti numerous other times the past year—and has spent approximately four months on Haitian soil in the last 10 months. His primary work emphasis is on capacity development of the Haitian health system.  A specific project of his is helping bring Hopital Ste. Croix, a large referral hospital about five miles from the epicenter of the earthquake, back into operation.  It is the largest hospital in the area. Gifford learned Wednesday afternoon that the hospital collapsed (see photo).

Hospital in Haiti

Contact with the people he works with at the hospital has been unsuccessful since news of the earthquake hit.

Gifford says he and the students are very fortunate to be back home. But he adds, “I’m afraid that many of the people that I work with in Haiti may not have survived.  Haiti is totally ill prepared for this as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”  Unemployment in Haiti is approximately 80 percent. Per capita income is $250/year and illiteracy is around 50 percent.  Haiti is the fourth poorest nation in the world, yet sits only a few hundred miles from the United States.

There is no estimated death toll from the quake, but it is expected to be quite high. The International Red Cross tells the Associated Press that a third of Haiti’s 9 million people might need emergency aid and that it will take a day or two for a clear picture of the damage to emerge.

People in Haiti were facing enormous health challenges even before the Jan. 12 earthquake. Inadequate nutrition and poor sanitation already contributed to illness, malnutrition and skin diseases. Among adults, HIV/AIDS continues to be a critical health issue and malaria is a chronic health problem in the outlying areas.  Further, the health system in the area of the earthquake has been ravaged.  There are few health professionals available to help and there are no tertiary care hospitals. In fact, the best hospitals are no better than lower level community hospitals in the United States. For example, there are no MRIs in the nation and only a few ultrasound machines.

“I’ve been to third-world countries and have seen poverty before but the experience we had in Haiti was overpowering,” said Adam Brown, MBA Health Administration student at UC Denver’s Business School. “The needs are so vast, I was amazed how some could even survive; basic services were intermittent at best while we were there—prior to the earthquake—and we saw 20 to 30 people living in single-room homes stacked one on top of another.”

Gifford says with these conditions already in place, malnourishment will be a big issue in coming days as well as infectious diseases and water and sanitation.
Following news of the earthquake, the UC Denver Office of International Affairs made almost immediate contact with Gifford and learned that he and the students had safely landed in Florida. (Their flight had left Haiti just hours prior to the quake.)

International risk management has become a top priority for UC Denver. The university recently established the International Risk Management Committee and has enrolled in International SOS, the world’s leading international security information and intervention service.  The international risk management committee worked closely with Gifford and the university administration to establish a risk management plan for his journey.

Carolyn North, PhD, assistant vice chancellor of International Affairs at UC Denver, said: “Incidents like these are a reminder that it is very important for university personnel to work with the Office of International Affairs when planning international programs. We have established rigid risk evaluation and management protocols for international travelers and activities.”
When planning any international travel and programs, please contact the Office of International Affairs for information about insurance, risk planning, health and safety and the new International SOS services: 303.315.2230, [email protected]  or [email protected].

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