Haiti launched a countrywide vaccination campaign to immunize millions of children against childhood killers.
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, center, tours the Eliazar Germain hospital during a visit in Port-au-prince, Haiti, Monday, April 16, 2012. Sebelius is visiting Port-au-Prince to highlight the United States’ ongoing partnership with the Haitian government to strengthen healthcare in the country, especially with respect to the prevention of infectious diseases.
By Jacqueline Charles
More children die in Haiti before reaching their fifth birthdays than anywhere else in the Americas. And more Haitian children lack all of their shots than in most countries.
Seeking to change these grim statistics, Haiti is ramping up vaccinations against measles, rubella, and polio as part of an intensive countrywide immunization campaign that kicks off Saturday. The launch coincides with the World Health Organization’s Immunization Week, a global effort to underscore the importance of immunizations.
“Our mission is to save lives and particularly to save the lives of our children,” said Dr. Florence Duperval Guillaume, Haiti’s health minister. “Children today will be the adults of tomorrow, and they will be the ones entrusted with the future of the country.”
With less than 60 percent of Haiti’s tiniest citizens completely immunized, Guillaume has set an ambitious goal. She wants to raise the number to at least 90 percent, especially for children under 5, against measles and polio. Haiti has been declared polio free since 2001, she said, but to get accredited the country needs to hit the 90 percent mark; not an easy task in a poverty-stricken nation where culturally parents don’t always see the benefits of taking children to a doctor unless they are sick and most of the population lack access to basic health services.
But where others see challenges, Guillaume sees opportunities.
“For me health, is an investment,” she said. “This is how I approach it. The more results you get, the better your chances of having a healthy population.”
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius agrees. Sebelius, recently spent two days in Haiti, most of it with Guillaume at her side. As she took a tour of the Eliazar Germain hospital in Port-au-Prince, she welcomed the increased focus on childhood vaccinations, including Haiti becoming the final nation in the Western Hemisphere to provide the pentavalent vaccine. A single shot, the vaccine offers protection against five childhood diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, and Haemophilus influenza Type b or (Hib), which causes bacterial meningitis. At least two of the five are among the world’s leading childhood killers.
“It’s important to make sure that children have these immunities going forward,” Sebelius said days later while touring another health center, this one in Miami. The Borinquen Heath Center is a federally funded facility, and 40 percent of its patients are Haitian, many of them survivors of the country’s devastating January 2010 earthquake.
As Sebelius commended Haiti’s vaccination plan, she said Guillaume is a physician who “is very focused on measurable, achievable outcomes that will build the health of the people of Haiti and we’re eager to work with her.”
The pentavalent vaccine campaign is expected to roll out next month. At about $9 per child, the vaccine is being provided to Haiti through the GAVI Alliance, a public-private health initiative. GAVI will provide Haiti with $2.15 million worth of pentavalent for 2012 as part of $7.5 million in pentavalent commitments in the coming years.
The U.S. Center for Disease Control has agreed to fund Haiti’s $177,500 contribution toward the vaccine for this year, said Jonathan Stern, GAVI Alliance spokesman.
Stern said Haiti also has been approved for two other children vaccines next year, Rotavirus and pneumococcal.
Guillaume said the health ministry’s nationwide campaign will be focused on informing parents about the importance of vaccinations, registering children to keep a record of their shots, and employing youth. The idea is to use the youth to do outreach, while also educating them to the importance of vaccinations.
“They will be parents one day,” she said.
In addition to its children vaccination campaign, Haiti last week began vaccinating tens of thousands of people against cholera. A national bioethics committee approved the pilot vaccination program against the waterborne disease. Haitians began receiving the first of two doses of the oral vaccine, Shanchol, last week.
The target is 100,000 Haitians or 1 percent of the population living in vulnerable slums near the capital and a rice-growing community near St. Marc, where the epidemic first broke out. The cholera vaccinations are being administered by Boston-based Partners In Health and GHESKIO, a Port-au-Prince health center.
Since its initial outbreak in late 2010, cholera has infected more than 530,000 Haitians and killed about 7,040. Since March, 77 Haitians have died from the disease, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said Friday.
Sebelius, who met with foreign donors while in Haiti, said cholera and other challenges show that “continued investment does make good sense.”