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Haiti’s Children and Poor Pay Price of Embargo

November 6, 1993

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ At 18 months, Kattia has limbs like twigs and large, listless eyes that don’t focus or smile. But she’s gained weight, up to 11 pounds now, and is one of the lucky ones.

She’s probably going to make it. But not all the others will.

Health workers say the United Nations oil embargo that went into effect Oct. 19 is shredding an already fragile health system and hitting the poorest and youngest the hardest.

″There is no gas and many of the parents who bring their children come from far away on foot,″ said Dr. Marie Francisque, who runs the Grace Childrens’ Hospital here.

Vaccination clinics have been canceled and epidemics of measles and other illnesses are setting in.

The hospital, which specializes in tuberculosis, typically loses about 14 children in six months. The rate now is running nearly twice that.

Fifteen percent of those who come here die in the first week. After treatment starts the rate greatly improves - but that treatment is getting harder to provide.

Francisque and others say the economy has been destroyed by this embargo and previous ones. ″It is wrong to think the economy and the health system aren’t related,″ she said.

The parents ″cannot afford the tap-taps (small public vans) and they get here too late, too late,″ she said during an interview at the hospital.

″Health is no longer a priority here, people bring their children in the last stages of diseases. We cannot do miracles, we are not God.″

The embargo was intended to force Haiti’s military to give up power and ease the way for exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide to return.

But like most embargoes, it has its unintended victims.

″It is sad, very sad to see what we have achieved over the years lost in this way, and all in the name of democracy,″ she said.

Haiti already has an extremely high infant mortality rate. The latest figures indicate about 11 of every 100 children don’t see their first birthday.

In the United States, by comparison, the infant mortality rate last year was about 8.5 per 1,000 live births.

The first two years of the embargo claimed an estimated 10,000 Haitian lives. But many more weakened by malnutrition and other side-effects have died since. The embargo was suspended briefly and resumed last month.

Dr. Jean-Claude Delval, a representative of SOS Children Without Borders, said that until August, his group had provided 20,000 children in 80 schools what often was their only meal of the day.

But now, there is no gasoline to distribute the food.

The Aristide government has said there are no complaints, that people are willing to put up with the hardships to get their president back and that a lack of basic medical care always has been a problem.

Aristide last month asked the United Nations for a total commercial blockade.

″Every day I hear complaints about the embargo as I cross the country,″ Delval said. ″Aristide’s popularity may have increased but its intensity has dropped.″

Businessman and political commentator Jean-Claude Roy questioned the ultimate goal of the embargo.

″What is the aim of the sanctions?″ asked Roy, who is close to army leaders. ″The international community is wrong-headed if it thinks the people are going to rise up against the army. The sanctions are turning the international community into an enemy of the people.″

Francisque said tradition also plays a role in the effects of the embargo.

″We tell them that their children are very sick, that they should stay here. But they ask if the embargo is a white voodoo, with big planes coming to kill them. They don’t realize what an embargo is.″

Meanwhile, supply and demand has driven the price of basic drugs up 100 percent in recent weeks, the doctor said. And because the government cannot buy them, it’s up to the patients to pay for drugs.

Only weapons and oil, not drugs, are covered by the embargo. But Francisque said a ship, the Kirk Trader, failed to arrive last month because of the embargo and its cargo included a container of badly needed medicine.

Francisque said more mothers are abandoning their children at the clinics, leaving medics to find space for them in crowded orphanages.

Kattia, who was near death, was brought in by relatives a month ago after her mother died. If the relatives don’t come back, Kattia will be placed in an orphanage.

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