International Partners In Health
NYU Alum Assists Oral Health Coalition of Haiti in Addressing Post-Earthquake Disaster Relief Needs

Dr. Christina Lafontant, Oral Health Coalition of Haiti Team Leader

Dr. Samuel Prophete, President of the Haitian Dental Association, with local children.

Since 2005, NYUCD and the University of Haiti School of Dentistry have been engaged in an informal collaboration, known as the NYUCD–University of Haiti Collaborative Research Program, which jointly researches oral health conditions in Haiti to collect the necessary oral health data needed to help the island nation's government plan effective oral health programs for the future. This has the added goal of building a cadre of epidemiologists who are qualified to conduct future oral health research on the island. Further strengthening this link is NYUCD's recent donation of 19 dental chairs to the University of Haiti School of Dentistry, bringing the number of dental chairs donated by NYUCD to Haiti in the past three years to a total of 46.

In the immediate aftermath of the January 12, 2010, earthquake in Haiti, which killed 220,000 Haitians, chaos and fear on this island nation were tangible. Most severely hit was Haiti's capital and largest city, Port-au-Prince. Haiti's president appealed for international aid after dozens of aftershocks ensued, stating, "Parliament has collapsed. The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed."

Although the University of Haiti School of Dentistry did not suffer damage, the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) recognized the need to immediately pursue disaster relief activities related to oral health, as well as intermediate-recovery range plans and long-term sustainability plans.

To that end, PAHO's Regional Advisor for Oral Health, Dr. Saskia Estupiñán-Day, assembled the Oral Health Coalition of Haiti (OHOH) as a PAHO-led group. The coalition included PAHO, the PAHO Foundation, the University of Haiti School of Dentistry, the World Health Organization (WHO), the Federation Dentaire Internationale (FDI), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR), the American Dental Association (ADA), the National Dental Association (NDA), the American Dental Education Association (ADEA), the International Association for Dental Research (IADR), the Latin American Dental Association (FOLA), the Haitian Dental Association, the US Public Health Service, Alpha Omega Foundation, Harvard School of Dental Medicine, the University of Maryland, and the Kornberg School of Dental Medicine at Temple University, among others.

NYUCD's Dr. Walter Psoter, Associate Professor of Epidemiology & Health Promotion, who has spent years investigating the impact of early childhood malnutrition on the development and diseases of the permanent dentition of teenagers in rural Haiti (see related article), was chosen to lead the effort of an OHOH subcommittee to produce a written report laying out detailed plans to address post-earthquake disaster relief efforts. Over the course of a long weekend, the subcommittee - consisting of Dr. Psoter; Dr. Jean Lafond, Dean of the University of Haiti School of Dentistry; Dr. Samuel Prophete, President of the Haitian Dental Association, Vice Dean for Research Affairs at the University of Haiti School of Dentistry, and a former Visiting Professor at NYUCD; Dr. Christina Lafontant, a PAHO consultant in Haiti and a 2008 graduate of NYU's MPH in Global Public Health Program (oral health concentration); and Dr. Ralph V. Katz, Professor and Chair of NYUCD's Department of Epidemiology & Health Promotion, who organized the subcommittee - produced a comprehensive, 29-page report.

Via weekly phone teleconferences, the subcommittee members and all OHOH members continue to focus on providing for the short-term, intermediate-term, and long-term sustainability of oral health needs in Port-au-Prince, as well as in the post-earthquake intra-Haiti diaspora, which resulted in 500,000 Haitians leaving Port-au-Prince and returning to their home villages across Haiti, as indicated on the map to the left of this article.

Global Health Nexus recently spoke to Dr. Lafontant about her role in the disaster relief efforts. Dr. Lafontant, a native of Haiti, participated in epidemiological research in Haiti under Dr. Psoter's tutelage. That experience motivated her to apply to NYU's MPH in Global Public Health Program. Following the earthquake, Dr. Lafontant was appointed by PAHO as their on-site OHOH Team Leader.

Interview with Dr. Christina Lafontant, Oral Health Coalition of Haiti Team Leader

Global Health Nexus (GHN): When did you become a PAHO consultant?

Dr. Lafontant: I first provided services as a PAHO consultant approximately one year ago, when I was invited to help coordinate Haiti's participation in the Oral Health Workshop for the Region of the Americas. My task was to design an oral health program for Haitian school children.

Following the terrible earthquake of January 12, 2010, the most powerful to hit Haiti in 200 years, the PAHO oral health program felt the need to contribute to the overall emergency relief efforts in Haiti. At that time, the PAHO Bureau in Haiti had a very limited capacity to evaluate and address the oral health needs of the community. So I was brought back onboard to serve as the Oral Health Coalition of Haiti Team Leader because of my background both as a dentist and a public health specialist who had experience working with PAHO and had an understanding of the community's oral health needs following the earthquake.

GHN: What are your duties as Oral Health Coalition of Haiti Team Leader?

Dr. Lafontant: Essentially, I am the point person for helping to address oral health needs in post-earthquake Haiti. I assist in planning, implementing, and evaluating OHOH activities for aid relief to the oral health community and participate in meetings and discussions with key people on the ground in Haiti who have made an impact on the oral health system or have the potential to do so.

GHN: What are some of the activities outlined in the OHOH subcommittee report regarding plans to address post-earthquake disaster relief needs?

Dr. Lafontant: First, let me commend all the members with whom I collaborated to produce the report: Dr. Katz, Dr. Lafond, Dr. Prophete, and Dr. Psoter. Dr. Psoter's experience in disaster relief was particularly instrumental in devising plans to address the immediate and long-term population needs in oral health care and services in Haiti.

Below are some of the activities we outlined:

  • Immediate disaster relief activities, including emergency healthcare provisions for trauma and infections in locations hit by the earthquake, along with plans to quickly expand these activities to areas to which populations have migrated;
  • Intermediate-recovery range plans, including recovery and rehabilitation plans such as sealants in the camps, institutional partnerships to strengthen the capacity of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other oral health sites to deliver oral health services though the work of volunteers;
  • Long-term sustainability plans, including strengthening the University of Haiti School of Dentistry's curriculum in areas such as emergency and disaster training for dentists and creation of a dental auxiliary training program.

GHN: What is the status of oral health needs assessment in Haiti?

Dr. Lafontant: We have completed a needs assessment for NGOs providing oral health services in Port-au-Prince and will go on to conduct a similar assessment for both public and private dental health facilities in other areas of the country. This is important in order to allocate resources efficiently.

GHN: What are some areas in which you hope to work with NYUCD in the future?

Dr. Lafontant: I hope to be able to work with NYUCD in strengthening Haiti's ability to update the University of Haiti School of Dentistry's curriculum, broaden its clinical services provision, and build research capacity in areas including population-based research and social and behavioral research related to oral health.