“It looks like a bomb went off,” said one person in the car as we drove through Beaumont, a mountain town in southwest Haiti.
Someone else said it looked like a wildfire had swept through the island.
How can wind and rain completely erase so many homes from the hillside?
And shear the roofs off, not just a few, but all of the buildings in so many towns?
I’m told that this used to be one of the greenest places in Haiti with mountain forests stretching as far as the eye could see.
Now all of the branches and leaves have been stripped from the trees, banana plantations have been uprooted and blown away – the landscape is mostly brown.
As an advisor for children’s nutrition in emergencies, my mission in Haiti – where nearly one in four children under five years of age is malnourished – is clear.
Without rapid action, an emergency of this scale can push those children beyond the brink of survival.
The worst storm in decades
Hurricane Matthew was the worst hurricane to hit Haiti in decades.
When it struck on 4 October, it left a trail of mass destruction across a poor and isolated part of the country. The numbers of dead and injured continue to rise.
In Beaumont, I spoke with a young mother who had actually given birth as the storm was raging. She lost her home and is now living in the partially destroyed school.
The world’s most powerful defence
As I saw trucks with relief supplies trickle past on the road, I was struck by how one of the best life-saving supplies for vulnerable children is already here with their mothers – breast milk.
Breastfeeding is the world’s most powerful defence when it comes to saving children’s lives.
It’s believed that 13% of all child deaths around the world could be prevented with breastfeeding up to six months. That’s more young lives than any other single intervention.
Life and death
In hurricane-hit areas of Haiti water is contaminated, hygiene is difficult, and cholera is a serious threat.
In these places, breastfeeding can be difference between life and death.
Breast milk builds a child’s immune system and strengthens their future protection against illnesses and malnutrition.
And it reduces the risk of them contracting illnesses like diarrhoea, which are common and lethal in the aftermath of disasters.
Baby formula and contaminated water
Despite international guidelines against it, some of the cargo arriving will probably contain donations of breast milk substitutes or baby formula.
There are a lot of myths about the benefits of baby formula, but the reality is that it can be very dangerous in emergencies.
Haitians wait for treatment at Save the Children’s Emergency Health Unit, a mobile health clinic like the one Jesse works in.Young children at risk
Water used to mix baby formula is often contaminated following a disaster.
And it’s incredibly difficult to keep bottles sterilised and safe for babies.
In emergencies it’s the youngest children who are at the greatest risk of serious illness, and formula-fed babies are 50 times more likely to be hospitalised from diarrhoea than those who are breastfed.
Challenges of breast-feeding
Despite the widely known benefits of breast milk, even in the best of circumstances, mothers can find it challenging to breastfeed their children.
After a disaster, these challenges only increase as families are displaced and sometimes separated.
Crowded conditions limit a woman’s privacy and the intimate time she can spend with her children.
It’s my job to create a supportive environment where mothers can give their children the best nutrition possible.
Today, we’re deploying certified breastfeeding counsellors with our mobile medical teams to visit temporary shelters and make sure mothers have what they need.
The counsellors support mothers and are equipped with ‘baby kits’.
They provide some of the essentials that mothers need to keep their babies clean, clothed, and healthy.
Over the next few weeks, I’ll work with the team to establish private and secure breastfeeding areas in temporary settlements.
We’ll train community volunteers to conduct support and education sessions for women with young children.
We’ll also be working with clinics and hospitals to train and support health workers to discourage promotion of baby formula and encourage new mothers to begin breastfeeding within one hour of birth – and keep going after that.