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UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) works for health in Haiti

UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) works for health in Haiti

Although primarily known for its work in curbing the proliferation of nuclear weapons, the United Nations International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is also working to save the lives of babies and women with cervical cancer in Haiti.

The IAEA said in a news release that it is putting its expertise in nuclear science and radiation to use in the Caribbean country to curtail infant malnutrition and bolster cancer treatment.

Haiti has the highest rates of mortality for both infants and children under the age of five in the Western hemisphere, with poverty, civil conflict and insufficient knowledge of proper diet being the root causes of malnutrition.

“We get Kwash babies every day,” said Jessy Colimon Adrien, Chief of Paediatrics at the General Hospital in the capital Port-au-Prince, referring to Kwashiorkor, a severe form of malnutrition.

IAEA has joined forces with the Haitian Ministry of Health to use nuclear science to improve infant nutrition, focusing on the advantages of breast milk, which is both healthy for infants and is low-cost. The UN World Health Organization (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months.

Together, they will conduct studies using stable and non-radioactive isotopes to identify breastfeeding patterns in Haiti, and the findings will allow the Government to better understand the causes of infant malnutrition and how to cure it.

“Culturally mothers do not believe that breast milk is enough for the baby and they try to introduce foods early like leafy tea, juice, crackers and porridge,” Joseline Pierre Marhone, who heads the Food and Nutrition department in the Ministry of Health, said.

Inadvertently, by feeding the infants such foods, the mothers expose their babies to bacteria and viruses causing diarrhoea and other infectious diseases.

“The IAEA studies will help us know how many mothers breastfeed exclusively,” she added.

The studies will use a safe and non-evasive method with stable isotopes measuring quantities a mother’s milk. Mothers will be given a dose of deuterium, also referred to as heavy hydrogen, to ingest in a glass of milk. This mixes with the mother’s body water and is transferred to her baby via human milk.

Over the following two week period, saliva samples will be taken from both the mother and the baby to determine whether the baby is consuming food and water from sources other than its mother’s milk, the amount of human milk it has ingested and the nutritional status of the mother.

IAEA’s efforts are building on the schemes of other UN agencies – such as the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), WHO and the UN World Food Programme (WFP) – and other international organizations, including the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).

In the past decade, IAEA has provided $1.66 million to support nutrition programmes worldwide. By 2009, an additional $1.6 million has been earmarked for countries including Afghanistan, Haiti, Iraq, Eritrea, Madagascar and Burkina Faso to train staff and extra equipment to reduce child malnutrition.

The agency also hopes to help combat cancer in Haiti by providing assistance in building a national cancer treatment centre equipped with the technology necessary to diagnose and treat the disease.

According to WHO, despite patchy national figures, Haiti has one of the highest incidences of cervical cancer in the world, with a rate three times higher than that of its neighbour the Dominican Republic and 12 times higher than that of the United States.

The success rate in cures for women with cervical cancer is 65 per cent when treated with radiotherapy, but there are no radiation therapy centres in Haiti.

“It’s frustrating,” said Jean Cornely, a gynaecologist at the General Hospital. “Often we’re forced to send patients home to die. They die in a very bad situation.”

In more affluent countries, early detection through screening and simple treatment can effectively combat the disease, but adequate treatment is not available in Haiti.

“Cancer is seen as a disease of the rich, the aged,” noted Massoud Samiei who heads IAEA’s Programme of Action on Cancer Therapy (PACT). “More than half of new cancer cases occur in developing countries, where it is a leading cause of morbidity and mortality.”

Radiotherapy can also help alleviate pain in patients with advanced cervical cancer, and even a short dose of radiation can stop bleeding, help control bladders and relieve severe pain.

IAEA is supporting the establishment of a cancer treatment centre equipped with the capacity and technology to deliver radiotherapy, and to this end an architect has created a blueprint for the new centre pro bono. Once built, IAEA will provide radiotherapy units and diagnostic equipment. The centre will treat roughly 2,000 patients a year, half of them women afflicted with cervical cancer.

IAEA is sending young local doctors to Canada for three years of training in oncology, and will also send nurses to be trained as radiotherapy technicians.

“Haiti is making important steps in the planning and design of what will be a very complete cancer facility that will be used not just for treatment, particularly for radiotherapy, but also for diagnosing cancer,” said IAEA Deputy Director General and Head of Technical Cooperation.

Dr. Cetto recently met with President Rene Preval and other Haitian officials regarding boosting technical cooperation between IAEA and Haiti. “We have been having serious talks with the various authorities to make sure they take the decision as early as possible to go ahead with the comprehensive integrated approach on cancer therapy which involves national financing to construct this facility.”