Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

27 January 2010

Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

27 January 2010
Spokesperson's Noon Briefing
Department of Public Information • News and Media Division • New York

Daily Press Briefing by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General

The following is a near-verbatim transcript of today’s briefing on Haiti received via video link, by the Country Director of the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), Guido Cornale, and the World Health Organization (WHO) Representative, Henriette Chamouillet, and moderated by the Office of the Spokesperson for the Secretary-General.

Moderator ( New York):  Hello, good morning.  It’s Yves Sorokobi here from the Spokesperson’s Office.  Can you hear me?

Chief of Public Information for the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), David Wimhurst:  Yes, sure, Yves, I can hear you, thank you.

Moderator:  All right.  David, I also hear that you are introducing the colleagues?

Chief of Public Information:  Yes.  Let me give you the names of our two distinguished visitors today.  Both of them are medical doctors.  We have, nearest to the camera, Dr. Guido Cornale, who is the Country Director for UNICEF, and he will talk to you about the operations of UNICEF and the cluster that UNICEF belongs to.  And next to him is Dr. Henriette Chamouillet, who is the Country Director of the World Health Organization and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), and obviously in the health cluster.  Each will give an overview of the activities in their clusters, successes, problems and so on, and then we’ll open it up to questions from journalists in New York.

Moderator:  All right, that sounds good.  I think we can get started with the three colleagues, if they can give us some introductory remarks.  You have the floor, doctor.

UNICEF Country Director:  Good morning. I can start [by] saying this is really a children’s emergency.  You know, in Haiti, 40 per cent of the population is under 14, so the number of children affected is really huge.  And what we’re doing is for the moment very much focusing on life-saving operations.  UNICEF is actually ensuring coordination along with the Government and partners on several key sectors for children, and for the general affected population.  In particular, in the water, sanitation and dietary sectors, we are trying to make sure that all the population, and children in particular, are receiving enough drinkable water.  And we have reached now over 300,000 people with drinkable water.  Sanitation remains a challenge due to the fact that makeshift camps are not easy places to set up sanitation facilities.  However, in settlements that are being prepared as child centres to host the affected population, sanitation is being addressed not only in Port-au-Prince, but also in other affected areas.

Any question from your side?

Moderator:  Yes, if the other two colleagues can also make some comments before you take questions.

WHO Representative:  As you know, WHO is leading the health cluster, and I think we’re going to talk more about it later on.  So this is the major task that WHO/PAHO is doing these days.  The second one is in relation to the distribution of drugs and medical supplies, and the third one is in relation to hospitals.  So this is mainly what we’re presently doing, but we can talk much more in detail on each of these three topics.

UNICEF Country Director:  Now, our joint concern with WHO and with UNICEF is to make sure that actually all children are ensured sufficient access to health services, to nutrition, to food and nutrition, to protection, and you have certainly seen in these days, or in the news, how the challenge is to protect children from abduction, to make sure that children that have been separated from their families are actually able to be reunified, and how we are working to make sure that all orphanages and child centres that have been hit by the quake are actually receiving the essentials to ensure not only survival, but satisfaction of the basic needs of the children.  And with PAHO and PAHO/WHO, we are actually getting ready for a massive immunization campaign against measles, tetanus and diphtheria.  My PAHO colleague, I think, can give some more details on the joint activities we are planning to run.

WHO Representative:  I think I prefer to give the floor first to my colleague here, who is also a doctor, Dr. Dana van Alphen, and she is the person leading the health cluster.  So she can give much more detail on what is done within the health cluster.

WHO/PAHO Health Cluster Representative Dr. Dana van Alphen:  For the health cluster, we have around 155 international agencies participating in the health cluster, and this is not counting the United Nations agencies and the national NGOs.  The Ministry of Health is co-chairing the meetings, and because of the number of people, we had to divide ourselves in various sub-groups so we can deal with primary care, we can deal with hospitals, we can deal with waste management, and water for the hospitals, mental health, gender-based violence -- various sub-groups.

For the moment, the priority of the Ministry of Health is actually a medium-term commitment at least, because many agencies come in and they stay only one week performing trauma surgery, orthopaedics, and the needs started to shift now more to medium term.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  We will start taking questions now.  We have about 25 minutes for these questions, and I hope you will indulge us. 

Question:  For any of you, any of the doctors, what have you seen in terms of any outbreaks of communicable diseases based on lack of sanitation or clean water, etcetera?  Has there been anything spread, diarrhoea and so forth?  What is facing the health of the people who are living on the streets and depending on the aid that’s coming in?

UNICEF Country Director:  So far we didn’t register any major outbreak, and I think this is due to the fact that clean water, treated water, chlorinated water, is being distributed since the onset of the early response.  However, as I was mentioning before, we’re faced with a tremendous challenge in ensuring sanitation.  There is no rain yet, but it can start any time, and this can help spread diseases.  What we’re working on is exactly to step up our joint capacity to deliver, and the Government is actually at the lead of the provision of water and of the engineering for sanitation in this difficult situation, to provide sanitation facilities for the affected population.

WHO/PAHO Health Cluster Representative:  If I may add that the Ministry of Health, together with PAHO/WHO, established 31 sites: sanitary surveillance in order to receive all this information about possible rumours.  Presently, two or three reports by international agencies are being investigated.  We had reports of bloody diarrhoea cases and they showed to be negative.  So the Ministry, together with the partners, are doing their best to investigate all the cases.

UNICEF Country Director:  One more thing I can add is that it is urgent to get started with immunization of all children against highly communicable diseases such as measles.  Measles in such emergency situations is always a major concern because an outbreak of measles in this moment could really spread very fast to all the makeshift camps and reorganized camps that are around.  So what we’re working on with PAHO and with the Ministry of Health is to get ready as soon as possible, by next week, and we target half a million children with measles immunization.

WHO/PAHO Health Cluster Representative:  And that is really a priority because before the earthquake the coverage of targeted population was about 50 per cent, which is really low, and that cannot prevent any outbreaks.  So we’re not in a population that is covered by 95 per cent, which would limit any possibility of outbreak.  But here we’re speaking of a population that has very low permanent coverage, which is only 50 per cent or maybe less in that kind of population.  So it is an agency now to go for vaccination.

Moderator:  All right, do we have any other question here?

Question:  I have a question for David.  David, there’s been some reports of the Chinese rescue team came in there, went to the Christopher, dug out the Chinese police team and went home again.  Do you know if that’s true?

Chief of Public Information:  At the Christopher Hotel, we had a number of search teams actively engaged in helping us recover our colleagues who had escaped and who could get out alive, and obviously, in the process, recover bodies as well.  We had Israeli search teams, we had Chinese, as you mentioned, we had Americans, and they were all working very hard.  And when the Chinese had indeed to recover the bodies of their visiting delegation that was in the meeting with Mr. [Hédi] Annabi, they did recover the bodies and then they left, but the work went on with other teams.

Question:  Are they still in Haiti or did they leave the country?

Chief of Public Information:  They went back to China.

Question:  So they just came to look for the Chinese and left?

Moderator:  [following moment of no response from Haiti]  I guess we’ll move on to the next question.

Question:  A question for David.  I guess you’ve seen inflation take hold, prices on the streets of goods ‑‑ including gasoline and etcetera ‑‑ increase as people try and gouge, or you know, just going up because there are shortages?

Chief of Public Information for MINUSTAH:  That’s an interesting question.  I mean, I have seen reports that there have been price increases of course, in some sectors, but at the same time, the price of food has been reported to me as dropping, which makes sense if you think, you realize, that food is actually coming into the city from outlying farms.  The farms and the market gardens that normally supply the city are continuing to do so.  There has been an exodus of about 250,000 people from the city, so demand has dropped.  Plus there has been a whole lot of food distributed by the agencies as relief, so the demand has dropped again.  So this would be a reason why food prices may have dropped.  In other sectors, I can’t give you a full picture, and perhaps at some point we might get an expert from the World Bank or one of the economic institutions to come and talk to you about that.

Question:  On health, one of the UN situation reports talked about some of the donors maybe leaving behind field hospitals and the Red Cross taking them over.  If you can just say of the hospitals, inflatable or otherwise, that have been brought in, which ones are going to stay behind?  I had also wanted to ask David, I had asked you a couple of days ago about the Christopher Hotel.  My understanding is that it was rented for $94,000 a month.  I wanted to know what the arrangement of that lease is, if that’s the case, if payments continue and whether there is yet an answer to whether the thing was MOSS (minimum operating security standards) compliant, or had other deficiencies that had not been corrected?

WHO/PAHO Health Cluster Representative:  Just to complete, for the field hospitals, only two military field hospitals are now packing up to leave.  One of them is leaving a lot of things behind, including the tents.  Another one a little bit less.

Chief of Public Information:  On your question on the headquarters, our security informs me that the hotel was MOSS-compliant.  As to the rent, I’m not sure of the exact figure, but I believe the number you mentioned is probably close to the amount.  As for the current arrangements with the landlord, I have no idea.

UNICEF Country Director:  If I may step in into the hospital, and more in general donor support of the public health sector.  I think one shared concern of all agencies that are here is that we might be moving, going into the early recovery phase.  We ought to make sure that all the aid that is flowing into Haiti will contribute to develop a national capacity at central and local levels to keep on working and strengthening services, not just in the next few months, but in the several years that will be needed to ensure proper construction and rehabilitation of the social services of the country, whether it is health, education, child protection, water and sanitation.

Question:  Just a follow-up on this Chinese team.  Are you aware of any other rescue work that the Chinese team did in Haiti, apart from rescuing the bodies, finding the bodies of their diplomats?  Are there any other sites that they were involved in, do you know?

Chief of Public Information:  I don’t think so.

WHO/PAHO Health Cluster Representative:  We met, in WHO/PAHO, we met yesterday with the Chinese delegation of around 45 persons who are interested in working in the new settlements, in the primary care area.  They also brought in epidemiologists and other type of expertise.

Question:  You have no information about any other sites that they were working on or involved in?

Chief of Public Information:  No.  No, I have no information about that.

Question:  I hope this question was not asked.  It’s for UNICEF.  There were reports last week of about 15 children disappearing from hospitals and orphanages, and potentially crossing the border into the Dominican Republic.  I’d like to know if you could give us an update on that, your assessment of child protection in Haiti?

UNICEF Country Director:  Sure.  I’m afraid that we may have many more cases, but unfortunately it is very difficult to have hard figures and to have hard evidence.  There have been several reports of children being abducted from hospitals, being flown away on four airplanes, being smuggled outside borders and so on.  Really, child trafficking is something that used to happen in emergency situations all over the world, and here in Haiti it is certainly not an exception.

What we have tried to do, and I think somehow it has been done, is to set up security in different locations, security at the airport, putting back in place the national brigade for child protection of the National Police, achieving support from the UN police through [working] with the child protection brigade to work with the Prime Minister and with the embassies to make sure that all adoption processes that actually have been around during this period do not concern victims of the earthquake, but are processes that followed due process before the earthquake, and that by the work we are currently doing is to set up new interim centres, transition centres, for children separated [from their families], and for family unification.

There are already three centres that are working since several days, and we are supporting local NGOs to set up other centres with the main aim of the centres being to act as referral centres for children unaccompanied or separated, and to get started with a family-reunification process, with experts coming from other disaster situations, from refugee camps in Africa.

UNICEF better knows exactly which techniques need to be employed to trace the family and to reunify children [with their families].  You may understand that if a child is old enough to be able to recall his location prior to the quake, it’s easier.  If it is a small baby, it is more difficult.  We cannot disclose the location of the centres, but we have a large network of local NGOs and others, and I repeat, we work closely with the brigade for child protection to improve surveillance both at the airport and at the Dominican border.  As a result, in the past two days, there’ve been reports of anecdotal evidence of child abduction, but so far those reports have diminished.

Moderator:  Unless the other colleagues have something to add to this, we’ll take another question from here.

UNICEF Country Director:  What I could add is that we are actually working very hard to improve the living conditions in child centres and orphanages, where children were actually living before the earthquake, and making sure that they are all assessed, that they are all receiving sufficient food, shelter and water to avoid a situation in which somebody steps in and says, “Well, we could do better with these children’s health”.

Moderator:  Yes?

Question:  David, everyone mentions that the United Nations and other people have contact every day with high-level Government officials.  It doesn’t seem that many of them, especially President [René] Préval, have been out in the street, trying to give hope to the population in centres.  And secondly, you people probably don’t even have a place to sleep yet, but still, despite your fantastic work getting food and water and so forth, there are still reams of complaints that people aren’t being fed or getting proper nourishment.  Where are the bottlenecks?

Chief of Public Information:  On the food front, it’s, I think, 500,000 and it’s increasing daily, so the food is going out for sure.  And food is also coming into the city, as I explained earlier, from gardens and farms nearby. The bottlenecks obviously continue to be the airport, where they can only land a certain number of planes every day, I think about 130 to 150, and I understand there’s at least 1,000 plans waiting to get in.  So they’re being diverted, some of them, to the Dominican Republic, and then stuff’s coming in by truck through the humanitarian corridor.

You mentioned the Government.  President Préval came to our compound -- I think a week ago, I can’t remember the exact date -- but we had just restarted broadcasting on our radio and he sat down and he spoke directly to the population of Port-au-Prince in Creole.  So he has been in contact with the population in that sense, and he’s given a number of other interviews to other Haitian media.  So he’s getting the message out.

Question:  Out on the street, have some Government ministers been more noticeable than others?  And is there stuff piling up at the airport that has a problem getting out?

Chief of Public Information:  I’m not aware of stuff piling up at the airport.  The planes are off-loaded as soon as they land and then they turn around and take off again and the supplies are directed to wherever they need to go. The Government meets every morning and we attend those meetings.  The ministers who are in charge of different areas of recovery and emergency relief are out and about doing their business.  Obviously, they’re in the city, looking at the situation and meeting with people.  But basically their task is to strategically direct where all this emergency relief has to go, through the various clusters that are organized here.

UNICEF Country Director:  May I say something? [inaudible]  At this morning’s meeting I really had the feeling that the Government was in control of the situation more than previous days, much more than previous meetings.  Serious plans are being prepared and strategies for the medium term are being drafted.

Moderator:  Yes?

Question:  Dr. Chamouillet, I know that the basic needs of the population in terms of health will change, or have already changed on the ground, from emergency to maybe longer-term care.  If you could please tell us, in French if possible, how is this changing on the ground and what kind of needs do you have right now?

[WHO/PAHO representative replies in French]

Moderator:  Thank you, Dr. Chamouillet.  I will ask you to give us a very brief summary in English of what you just said in French.

WHO/PAHO Representative:  I was saying that, yes, we are moving out of the emergency [phase].  For two weeks now, orthopaedic surgeons were involved in [treating] people’s many injuries.  Mainly, they were concerned with that.  And [inaudible] we also had a lot of amputations.  In the future, we have to take care of these amputated persons.  These are not only a few dozens or a few hundreds.  They are most probably [in the range] of thousands, if not more.  So that will demand a huge rehabilitation support in the future, and that is not going to last for two weeks, as I said.

Surgeons came two weeks ago; they are now leaving.  But we need to have in place, in Haiti, at least one or two or maybe three teams -- I can leave to my colleagues on the cluster to decide -- to deal with the consequences of these operations, amputations and infections.  So we need orthopaedic surgeons to remain in place for a long time, because in Haiti there are very few orthopaedic surgeons.  So that is one.  But the major concern that we have is all the rehabilitation that we have to do for these amputated persons, and that is going to last for months and even for years.  That supposes not only a lot of finances, but a lot also of trained staff for rehabilitation.

Moderator:  Thank you very much.  Go ahead, sir.

Question:  This also concerns long-term rehabilitation.  What are the plans for dealing with the psychological trauma that will happen as a result of this earthquake?

UNICEF Country Director:  Children are particularly affected in these circumstances, and I have direct experience of that from the hurricanes that took place in 2008.  So techniques are in place and the specialized staff is there from UN agencies, UNICEF and NGOs to start creating child-friendly spaces, to integrate activities around nutrition centres, around child centres, and through different techniques, including [inaudible] techniques, working on psycho-social recovery of the affected children, but not only that; can you imagine all the affected teachers that have to go back to school?  We didn’t touch upon bringing children back to school, which is one of our top priorities in the early recovery phase.  We are working on that; we have been preparing plans, but I mentioned the teachers, who are equally affected as their pupils in school.

So there are techniques, I repeat.  There are ways of dealing with psycho-social rehabilitation.  Even our professional staff has been severely affected and there are counsellors of the UN, of MINUSTAH in particular, who are working with the national staff of the different agencies.  So the problem is being tackled from different angles for different segments of the affected population, from children, teachers, UN staff and the general population.  My colleagues can give more details on that.

WHO Health Cluster Representative:  The Government established a mental health group.  They have a coordinator, who is a Haitian psychologist, and a whole team of counsellors.  There are five international agencies, including the United Nations -- UNICEF, WHO, PAHO, the Federation of the Red Cross and three more NGOs -- who are working and are meeting in order to make an action plan for how to deal with mental health and psycho-social support.  So there is work done on that area.

Moderator:  All right, we’ll take one last question.

Question:  This is for David.  You’d said a couple of days ago that this distribution in Cité Soleil on Sunday went well and that you left before there were reports of teargas and rubber bullets.  Since then, there have been a number of other incidents.  Is MINUSTAH tracking the use of these two weapons, or crowd-control techniques, by UN peacekeepers?  How often have they been used since Sunday, or further back, if you can do that?

Chief of Public Information:  I’m only aware of two -- the one that you mentioned in Cité Soleil.  I’m not aware of rubber bullets.  It’s tear gas.  I think teargas was used in another distribution that ended quite violently yesterday.  The use of teargas is in crowd control.  It can only be used according to strict rules and regulations, which are well established.  And the soldiers who use it know what to do and they only do so on the orders of their commanding officers, of course.

Sometimes, when the food runs out, when the distribution ends and people have not received what they think they should have received, tempers get frayed and you can easily have a mob scene developing very quickly, and the only way to control the crowd sometimes is to use teargas.  We do it with regret, but it has to be done, otherwise the situation would seriously get out of hand.  Unfortunately, we don’t have an infinite amount of food to distribute so that everybody can get fed everyday and nobody’s left out.  That’s why the World Food Programme is ramping up its delivery and its distribution by tens of thousands a day.

Question:  A couple of accounts say that, as the peacekeepers pulled out, they left behind either remaining food to be distributed or in one case a pile of radios, and people basically fought over it. What’s the protocol for the peacekeepers?  If they pull out, is it to take everything with them, to leave things behind to be fought over?  Have you heard of those?

Chief of Public Information:  I’m not aware of them leaving anything behind.  They have their equipment and their equipment belongs to them and they keep it with them.  I’m not aware of that at all.

Question:  Radios of the kind that people can hear broadcasts, that’s my understanding, but you haven’t heard of it?

Chief of Public Information:  No, I haven’t heard anything about radios.  Not at all.

Moderator:  All right, thank you very much.  Before we close here, I should remind you that the Secretary-General will be going to the stakeout position at the North Lawn Building this afternoon at 2:45.  So we hope to see you there.  Thank you.

Chief of Public Information:  Just one last point.  At Friday’s briefing, we hope to get you the WFP World Emergency Director, Ramiro Lopes da Silva.

Moderator:  Okay, David, we look forward to that one.  And thank you again to the colleagues.

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For information media • not an official record
For information media. Not an official record.