Haiti earthquake echoes at UC Denver

By Staff

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, Ph.D. — associate professor of international health management at the UC Denver Business School and Colorado School of Public Health as well as 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 of the last 10 months on Haitian soil. His primary work emphasizes capacity development of the Haitian health system.

One of his projects entails helping to revive operations at Hospital Ste. Croix, a large referral hospital about 5 miles from the epicenter of the earthquake. It is the largest hospital in the area. Gifford learned the hospital had collapsed, and contact with the people he works with there has been unsuccessful since the quake.

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."

People in Haiti were facing enormous health challenges even before the Jan. 12 earthquake. Inadequate nutrition and poor sanitation contributed to illness, malnutrition and skin diseases. Among adults, HIV/AIDS continues to be a critical health issue and malaria is a chronic problem in outlying areas. Also, 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.

"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."

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.)