Protecting Front-Line Health Workers from Infectious Disease in Rural Haiti #HelptheHelpers

In early December, a little boy arrived at the gates of St. Boniface Hospital nestled between his mother and father on a motorbike. Staff had been anticipating a case of this nature; the boy was the first case of diphtheria St. Boniface had received in years.

Thanks to common vaccinations, highly infectious diseases like diphtheria, tetanus and typhoid, are extremely rare in many parts of the world. In countries like Haiti, however, where St. Boniface Hospital is located, access to vaccines is limited and these infectious diseases still pose a serious threat.

Due to diphtheria’s highly contagious nature, the boy was placed in a makeshift quarantine space while staff assessed treatment options. The disease restricts airways and breathing, and typically requires a tracheotomy, an incision in the windpipe made to relieve obstructed breathing. The procedure can cause coughing in patients, risking transmission of the infection to the healthcare staff themselves.

Dr. Luther Ward, pictured here with nurse staff, is the chief surgeon at St. Boniface Hospital. Dr. Ward has played an influential role in setting up the hospital’s surgical program. St. Boniface Hospital photo. 

Luckily, St. Boniface had recently received a shipment from Direct Relief that included diphtheria vaccines from Sanofi Pasteur. With this resource at their disposal, the surgery staff at St. Boniface lined up to be inoculated, eliminating their risk of contracting the infection. The surgical team was then able to perform the lifesaving tracheotomy on the boy and restore his ability to breathe.

The Helpers


St. Boniface Hospital, located in Fond-des-Blancs, Haiti, is commonly accessed by motorcycle or on foot. Patients travel over an hour to reach this health facility, which is situated down a rugged, dirt road that is easily obstructed during natural disasters. Photo by Maris Watkins/Direct Relief.

Direct Relief is committed to providing access to essential medicine by equipping healthcare providers at St. Boniface.

St. Boniface has been at the forefront, reaching people in need of care since 1992. The hospital itself is located four hours outside of Port-au-Prince, in the rural town of Fond-des-Blancs, almost an hour down a rugged, dirt road. An 80-bed facility, St. Boniface is the primary referral hospital for the southern peninsula of Haiti, which is inhabited by nearly 2 million people.

Accessible only by a rough, sometimes impassable road, the hospital treats an average of 67,000 patients per year. Servicing this volume of patients, most of whom cannot afford to pay, requires a reliable supply chain. Direct Relief has been a proud supporter of St. Boniface for many years, providing the essential medicines and supplies necessary to treat chronic illness, infectious disease, traumatic injuries and everything in between.

Helping the Helpers


Overcrowded and underfunded facilities, lacking essential medical supplies, exacerbate the adverse health outcomes many Haitians face. The 2010 earthquake further debilitated the already weak health system, only to be followed by a cholera outbreak and, most recently, the devastation of Hurricane Matthew. Past disasters coupled with an inadequate health system have contributed to the prevalence of curable, yet fatal, diseases.

Moreover, a lack of access to healthcare isn’t just tied to inability to pay, but also the availability of life-saving medications and medical supplies. A variety of factors, from market demand to government intervention, can influence the supply of products that make prevention and treatment possible. Through St. Boniface’s partnership with Direct Relief, lifesaving vaccines are available to protect both the healthcare providers and the vulnerable populations they serve.

— Maris Watkins is Direct Relief’s resource acquisition associate. In January 2017, Watkins was part of a team that visited health care partners in Haiti impacted by Hurricane Matthew.