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Haiti patients 'will die' because of US airlift halt

US soldiers evacuate a patient near the ruins of the presidential palace in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on 23 January 2010
Hundreds of quake victims have been flown to the US for treatment

US doctors in Haiti have voiced concern about the suspension of evacuation flights to America for critically injured Haitian earthquake victims.

A senior US medic told the BBC that scores of patients could die if they did not get treatment in the US soon.

The US military stopped the flights to Florida on Wednesday.

A White House spokesman told the BBC the move was due to "logistical issues", not over medical costs as had been reported earlier.

In a separate development, Haitian officials have detained at least nine US nationals on suspicion that they tried to take more than 30 children out of the country without authorisation.

Meanwhile, the World Food Programme said it had established fixed sites for food distribution in the Haitian capital, Port au Prince, where only women would will be allowed in to collect earthquake relief supplies.

'Order from above'

Dr Barth Green, Dr Cathy Burneit and Dr David Pitcher describe difficulties in Haiti

Barth Green, a senior American doctor at a field hospital in Port-au-Prince airport, warned that the suspension of the so-called mercy flights could result in the deaths of scores of critically injured patients.

"The consequences - in the kids with crushed chests and on ventilators and respirators, and some of the adults - are they will die," Dr Green told the BBC.

He said there were "hundreds of thousands of critically injured and severely disabled Haitians, and we're only trying to send a few hundred to America".

There has been no policy decision made to suspend medical evacuation flights
White House spokesman

"It's really a small issue," Dr Green said.

He also said the US State Department, Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security had until now co-operated with the programme, but an "order from above" had halted the flights.

Among the patients was a five-year-old girl suffering from tetanus in a small leg wound.

She would die within a day unless evacuated, Dr David Pitcher, a medic at the institute's temporary field hospital at Haiti's international airport, told the Associated Press.

'Logistical hurdles'

"There has been no policy decision made to suspend medical evacuation flights. This is an unprecedented relief effort with enormous logistical hurdles, and we are working through those in an effort to resume medical evacuation flights," the White House spokesman said.

He stressed the flights had been halted due to "logistical reasons that have nothing to do with funding".

The New York Times earlier quoted the US military as saying that the flights were suspended because of a dispute over whether the federal government or the state government of Florida would pay for the evacuees' medical care.

Hundreds of patients with spinal injuries, burns and other wounds have been evacuated to the US since the 12 January quake that killed up to 200,000 people.

'Reaching saturation'

Confirming the flights had stopped, US Transportation Command spokesman Capt Kevin Aandahl said on Saturday: "Apparently, some states were unwilling to accept the entry of Haitian patients for follow-on critical care.

"We manage air evacuation missions, but without a destination to fly to we can't move anybody. If we don't have permission to bring them, or they won't take them in, we can't fly the mission. It's pretty simple."

He declined to say which states did not want to accept patients.

A spokesman for Florida Governor Charlie Crist said he was not aware of any hospital in his state refusing patients.

In a letter on Tuesday to US Health Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Mr Crist asked the federal government to activate the National Disaster Medical System, which usually pays for victims' care in domestic disasters.

He warned: "Florida's healthcare system is quickly reaching saturation, especially in the area of high-level trauma care."

Women-only

The Republican governor's letter noted the system was already under strain because of the winter influx of elderly people.

Meanwhile, the UN World Food Programme said it had set up 16 distribution points in Port-au-Prince which would open on Sunday and reach many more hungry Haitians.

But only women will be allowed in to collect rations, because, the WFP says, this has proved that is the best way to get food to the people who need it.

Men will be encouraged to wait outside the distribution centres to accompany women after they have been given rations, because lone women would be more vulnerable to attack.

The WFP is also starting to hand out food coupons entitling each family to collect 25kg (55lb) of rice rations, designed to last two weeks.



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