A woman sits at an open camp area in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Jan. 14. The death toll in Haiti’s catastrophic earthquake could run to tens of thousands of people. An estimate 3 million others will require emergency assistance, according to aid groups. (CNS photo/Carlos Barria, Reuters)

WASHINGTON – While thousands of people in Haiti were trapped beneath the rubble and wreckage left by the Jan. 12 earthquake, thousands of others were struggling to find adequate medical care in a region already beset by health problems and a lack of solid infrastructure.

Health officials warned that immediate health threats in the region include respiratory disease from inhaling dust from collapsed buildings and diarrhea from drinking contaminated water. Unsanitary conditions also could lead to the spread of infectious diseases such as malaria and measles.

Since many hospitals and clinics were severely damaged, those unable to get medical attention for broken bones and even minor injuries also could develop further complications and infections.

The Catholic Medical Mission Board, based in New York, was responding immediately to medical needs by collecting funds and medical supplies to send to its Haiti-based office.

Barbara Wright, the organization’s communications director, told Catholic News Service Jan. 14 that contact with its staff of 13 in Haiti has been limited at best. The office sustained damage but staff members were not harmed and were on the ground responding to relief efforts.

Although she could not identify the group’s top medical priorities, she said that from the U.S. end the CMMB was doing “what we always do” – sending medical supplies.

The group was soliciting medicines from pharmaceutical companies and monetary donations from the public to purchase emergency health kits from the World Health Organization. Donations can be made through theĀ  Web site www.cmmb.org.

Wright said one advantage to having workers on location in Haiti is that they can supervise what to do with incoming medical supplies. With so much chaos in the region, she said, supplies can arrive with “no plan for what goes where.”

After meeting immediate health care needs, she said another top health priority will be assigning volunteers to provide trauma counseling – a process which will take longer to organize and “won’t happen tomorrow.”

She noted that CMMB will continue to serve many of the same clients through its HIV/AIDS programs and malaria relief efforts, but now these same individuals “will have a lot more needs.”

A statement from Malteser International, the worldwide relief agency of the Sovereign Order of Malta based in Cologne, Germany, described Haiti’s current health situation – with the possible outbreak of epidemics and infections – as “the disaster beyond the disaster.”

The agency sent an initial medical team to Haiti Jan. 14 to provide first aid and medical assistance. Their emergency relief work also will be supported by a hospital in the north of Haiti run by the Order of Malta. It is the only hospital in that vicinity.