An Unshaken Committment

Partners in Health has a long-standing commitment to improving women’s healthcare in Haiti.

By Mia James

When world aid organizations flocked to Haiti in the wake of January’s magnitude 7.0 earthquake, Partners in Health (PIH) was already on the ground. A Boston-based non-profit that brings modern medical care to poor communities in 12 countries around the world, the organization has been delivering community-based care in Haiti since 1985.

Called Zanmi Lasante (meaning “Partners In Health” in Haitian Kreyol), PIH’s programs in Haiti address health concerns ranging from common conditions like diarrhea and pneumonia (potentially fatal among poor and malnourish populations) to more complex diseases like HIV and tuberculosis and also include a dedicated women’s health program, Proje Sante Fanm.

Women’s healthcare, according to Sarah Marsh, PIH’s Women’s Health Coordinator in Haiti, “is one of the four pillars of care we deliver.” In 1990 Proje Sante Fanm launched Haiti’s first comprehensive women’s healthcare plan for rural populations. Proje Sante Fanm delivers, free-of-charge, reproductive and broader women’s health services, including maternal healthcare, preventive care (including screening for breast and cervical cancer), family planning, testing for sexually transmitted infections (STIs), as well as surgical care. Testing for HIV (highly prevalent in Haiti) has also been integrated into general clinic care, and, Marsh says, “is discussed in any health consultation we do.” Marsh explains that PIH is also moving toward including care for common conditions like diabetes and hypertension, allowing, she says, “women to visit one place instead of many to get the care they need.”

Proje Sante Fanm currently operates with nine community centers and employs eight full-time OBGYNs, as wells as nurse-midwives and nurses. The community-based model is critical in Haiti, explains Marsh, because although Haiti has a many skilled healthcare providers, they tend to be located in cities and are not accessible to rural populations. “Distribution of professionals is out of whack,” she says. To that end, PIH is focused on drawing specialists like OBGYNs to rural locations.

After the Quake

Although PIH was actively improving healthcare for Haitians before the earthquake, its aftermath will undoubtedly affect its efforts. And this, according to Marsh, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  “I think a disaster like this creates a lot of opportunity,” she says, as meeting needs will demand strengthened infrastructure. “I think we have an opportunity to make the system work better.” New efforts will involve reaching populations displaced by the earthquake, with a particular emphasis on women’s health. Access to women’s healthcare, explains Marsh, is particularly important because “displaced populations tend to have more sexual violence, more sexual activity, less choice involved, and more desperation.” This volatile mix increases the need for STI testing, family planning, pregnancy testing, prenatal care, emergency contraception, and condoms. “All of these things need to be brought into these communities of displaced persons,” Marsh says.

Unshaken

One thing the earthquake hasn’t altered is Proje Sante Fanm’s goal to increase access to healthcare for Haitian women. Marsh says that PIH hopes to see women’s healthcare fully integrated, or “normalized”, into general healthcare so that women treated in any healthcare setting have access to a full spectrum of women’s services. “Women’s health should be a conversation that’s always present in interactions with health providers or community health workers,” says Marsh.

To learn more about Partners in Health and its programs in Haiti, Zanmi Lasante and Proje Sante Fanm, visit www.pih.org/where/Haiti/Haiti.html.