Climate Change, Migration and Healthcare in Gonaives

In 2006, I spent my first night in Gonaives during a trip from Port-au-Prince. Hurricane Anna and Ike were two years away from burying the city under water one more time. All I knew about Gonaives at the time was its historical significance as the site of the very first declaration of Haiti’s Independence. But after participating in a recent study on cholera in Gonaives, I have gotten a clearer image of not only the city, but of the impact of climate change on urban development, and its consequences on healthcare accessibility. I believe traditional medicine can help reduce this problem.

Gonaives is Haiti’s third most populated city, sheltering 356,324 people as of 2015.  According to ESA Consultance’s recent study (which I contributed to), Gonaives is at an important crossroad for commerce from the northern region of the country towards Port-au-Prince, the capital. The concentration of public services in the city attracts people from all over Haiti. Despite its demographic and geographic importance, Gonaives is infamously vulnerable and weak in the face of natural disasters.

In the 1970s, many countryside citizens began moving to urban centers to work in the then booming manufacturing industry. Although population movement continues to happen, employment is not its only guiding force. According to the International Organization for Migration, rural-urban movements in Haiti are often due to environmental events. My experience in Gonaives taught me how climate change contributes to inflate the city’s population.

People who live in vulnerable areas in dry seasons move up to the hills, in neighborhoods in the periphery of Gonaives, to be safe from floods during the rainy seasons. The impact of hurricanes Hanna and Ike in 2008 influenced Gonaives’ population increase and even forced the emergence of new neighborhoods. The city’s population almost doubled from 2003 to 2015. As a matter of fact, between 1954 and 2012, no less than 19 major hurricanes have affected Haiti. Due to persistent vulnerabilities and fiercer hurricane seasons (maybe due to warmer temperatures), such disasters will continue to haunt us.

With category 5 hurricane Irma currently approaching Haiti, vulnerable populations are still ill-prepared. How does this affect population health?

As cities expand, services such as clean water, sanitation, and healthcare become less accessible, since the existing structures fail to match the growing demand. In a 2000 national survey in Haiti, they determined that a large number of people consult traditional healers when they are sick before they turn to a physician, because of the former’s proximity to the people.  Trends in drugs sale in cities like Port-au-Prince show that most drugs are available over the counter and sold in the streets. Self-medication is also an essential option for Haitians when it comes to treating an ailment. Leveraging self-medication to bridge the gap in healthcare accessibility is not the answer. However, traditional medicine might be worth considering, as it is already playing an important role in the care system in general, particularly in the work being done to eliminate cholera.

Traditional healers can leverage their know-how regarding natural treatment and their proximity to a large part of the population to improve access to care.

Let me explain through an anecdote. Most traditional healers, like one middle-aged woman whose presentation on a panel I recently listened to, draw a line between what she called “natural cholera” and one they consider “mystical.”  According to her, “mystical cholera” is mild diarrhea that lasts a few days unlike “natural cholera” which kills within hours if left untreated. When people come to a Lakou or Vodou temple for treatment for “mystical cholera,” the mambo said, they are treated with starch, molasses, and a little nutmeg. If this does not improve the person’s condition, they refer him/her to the closest hospital or health center. In my professional opinion, mystical cholera does not actually exist, but the natural remedies used to treat it are perfectly suitable for healing many kinds of diarrhea. Fortunately, most healers know how to recognize symptoms of actual cholera, provide first aid and oral rehydration and redirect people to cholera treatment centers.

The lesson here is that as a part of the healthcare system in Haiti, traditional healers can leverage their know-how regarding natural treatment and their proximity to a large part of the population to improve access to care. But the department of pharmacopeia and traditional medicine of the Ministry of Health needs to do more extensive work, by surveying and training the traditional healers and promoting their expertise locally. But, being a tradition rather than a formal profession, traditional medicine could pose some challenges as the practices are not backed by a uniform and evidence-based science.

Given the continuing increase in global temperature, it would be delusional to imagine Haitian cities less vulnerable to natural disasters as they continue to expand. Haiti signed the Paris agreement, which propels initiatives to empower peasants and fight the effects of climate change. Therefore, despair is unnecessary. As stated on a lotto stand during one of my visits, we need to prepare for tomorrow Panse ak demen. Climate change will continue to disrupt our society and the accessibility of health care. This liability can be turned into an opportunity to build upon the knowledge and position of traditional healers to close the gap. Traditional medicine and community members can be among the most important steps towards progress.

Kenny Moise

Kenny Moise

Dr. Moise is a medical doctor, currently living and working in Haiti. He is the co-founder of IntregAction. He can be found on twitter @KennyMoise, where he tweets about his interests in public health, politics, social development and art.

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