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Two Years After the Earthquake, Merlin is Helping to Empower Haitians

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Two years after Haiti's worst earthquake in two centuries, I am proud to say that international health charity Merlin is still on the ground making a real difference to thousands of people's lives.

The earthquake, which hit Port-au-Prince on 12 January 2010, killed over 200,000 people and displaced around 1.5 million people. Merlin responded immediately, setting up an emergency field hospital on a tennis court in the capital Port-au-Prince, where thanks to health workers' dedication many lives were saved and perhaps just as importantly many livelihoods.

In a country as poor as Haiti where 78% of the population live on less than $2 per day, being able to work means the difference between life and death. As a result, many people who had suffered severe, life-threatening injuries held back from seeking medical assistance fearful that the response would be amputation and an end to their ability to support themselves. Merlin offered them an alternative, performing emergency orthopaedic and plastic surgery and giving patients a much brighter hope for the future.

The earthquake exacerbated an already inadequate health situation in Haiti, with the collapse of hospitals, nursing schools, Ministry of Health offices, and dozens of health centres. Any health service, including even the UK's much loved NHS, would struggle to cope with such a tragedy, but severely weakened, with limited resources and a diminished health workforce Haiti still needs all the help it can get. That is why I am so proud of another of Merlin's achievements. As well as improving the health of Haitians today Merlin is also strengthening the health of the whole country by recruiting local health staff.

At the heart of Merlin's mission is the principle that we will not just ship in foreign medical staff to stick a plaster over deep-rooted health problems. Our resolve to help rebuild shattered health services by working closely with the Ministry of Health and providing Haitians with the skills to help themselves. As such we have recruited local staff, and today at least 125 of our 140 employees are Haitian. Merlin also sends Haitian community health workers into the field to teach prevention techniques to local communities.

When I visited Haiti last year I was struck by the commitment, energy and enthusiasm of the Merlin staff and the lively, efficiency of the clinics. As well as an excellent international team, we have extremely strong national staff and there is great potential to recruit more Haitians to more senior positions.

As well as responding to the initial disaster, Merlin's team of health workers have also worked with the Ministry of Health to tackle other humanitarian challenges in Haiti over the last two years, such as Hurricane Irene and the cholera outbreak. In fact, by December last year Merlin's health workers had treated more than 5,000 cholera patients from our four cholera treatment centres. Overall, we are providing access to a wide range of health services to well over 116,500 people, with an emphasis on comprehensive primary health care services.

One of Merlin's strengths is that even in chaotic, emergency situations we pride ourselves on working closely with the government. In the immediate aftermath of the earthquake we involved the Haitian government in decision-making like helping us find a location for an emergency hospital and that close partnership continues to this day.

Two years on from the earthquake, life is far from perfect and many Haitians are still facing huge gaps in accessing the basic healthcare needed to stop preventable maternal and infant deaths. Cholera also remains a significant risk. Following the end of the rainy season, numbers have started to drop but this remains an emergency that could rear its head at any moment. If funding is cut and services closed, infection rates will rise and the relatively low fatality rates that have been achieved will quickly increase.

But thanks to the generosity of donors and a lot of inspirational people on the ground Haiti has made significant progress over the last two years.

Today, Merlin is treating over 5,000 people a month and is now focusing its expertise on one of the most remote areas of the country, where other agencies have not ventured. Here in the far north-east where difficulties accessing health care have made the needs even greater, our medical experts are having even greater impact.

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