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October 28th, 2010
11:35 AM ET

Blindsided in the Third World

[cnn-video url=http://www.cnn.com/video/#/video/world/2010/10/28/dnt.gupta.haiti.cholera.aid.cnn]

By Sanjay Gupta
CNN Chief Medical Correspondent

I visited one of the largest warehouses in Port-au-Prince yesterday. It is a large structure behind a big blue gate and a handful of security guards. I went to get a better understanding of how lifesaving supplies are distributed in the middle of a cholera outbreak. Outside, workers from aid organizations were also waiting to take supplies to patients in St. Marks, the epicenter of the outbreak.

It quickly became clear that it was going to be a long day. One of the workers told me she had been waiting for several hours to pick up the supplies despite the fact that she had all the necessary paperwork and authorizations. No one was available to help her. After sitting there frustrated nearly the whole day, she eventually left empty-handed, telling me this wasn’t at all unusual. “Typical Third World red tape,” she added.

I eventually made my way into the warehouse, where I expected to see the shelves bare from the recent demand for supplies to treat thousands of patients with cholera. Instead, the warehouse was almost full, with boxes of lifesaving IV fluids sitting there since July, as evidenced by their packaging slips. I asked to speak to someone in charge of the warehouse, and was told I would need to wait a few more hours. I waited.

Three hours later, I met the health management adviser. “We are doing the best we can,” he started. “Look, we saved thousands of lives with supplies,” he added. That was true, yet it still was baffling to me that so many simple lifesaving supplies were in a warehouse in Haiti, had been there for months, and were still sitting there, while hundreds of people died. “ We were blindsided,” he admitted. “No one expected a cholera outbreak.”

There hadn’t been a case of cholera in Haiti for many decades and it is still not clear why one is happening now. “But, still, the supplies are sitting there in tens of thousands of boxes. Why didn’t you distribute them?” I asked. “We have to plan ahead,” he said. “We can’t simply send all of our supplies to one area. What if Port-au-Prince was hit tomorrow?”

And, therein lies one of the big challenges with aid distribution. Trying to meet the immediate need in a disaster while also anticipating future demands. I have seen it happen over and over again in Haiti since the earthquake. It is a bitter irony. People die for lack of lifesaving supplies, even though the supplies were right there in front of them.

Of course, in this case, the supplies in question were not expensive medicines or difficult to transport technology. In this case, it was simple and cheap. It was rehydration packets and IV fluids. In the year 2010, there are still people on their hands and knees begging for clean water.


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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.