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Haiti turns to vaccinations a year after cholera struck

In a dramatic policy shift, Haiti has agreed to support a massive vaccination program to slow a cholera outbreak that has claimed more than 6,000 lives and sickened almost a half-million people.

Beginning in January, Boston-based Partners in Health will provide two dosages of the oral vaccine Shanchol to 100,000 Haitians living in two vulnerable communities: a neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, where potable water and latrines are luxuries, and to an isolated rural village in the lower Artibonite Valley region. The disease outbreak was first detected in the region a year ago this moth.

“We need to bring every resource available to stop the epidemic,’’ said Dr. Paul Farmer, a Harvard University professor who co-founded Partners In Health and serves as deputy U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti.

On the eve of last year’s presidential election, former President René Préval declined to launch a similar vaccination program, fearing social unrest. Government health officials said the program was not adopted because there weren’t sufficent vaccines for everyone.

President Michel Martelly, who was elected in March, and Prime Minister Garry Conille have voiced support for the new vaccination campaign.

“President Martelly is definitely behind the vaccine and so encouraged his ministry of health,’’ said Dr. Louise Ivers, senior policy adviser for Partners In Health. She believes continued deaths and advocacy from health groups helped shape the new policy.

The group is launching the program with Haiti’s health ministry and the GHESKIO Center, a well-respected Haitian aid group known for its groundbreaking work with HIV/AIDS patients in Haiti.

Partners In Health, which spends about $500,000 a month to treat cholera patients, says Haiti’s epidemic is the world’s largest. The decision to vaccinate Haitians comes as the country struggles to bring cholera under control, access to portable water and latrines in the country’s post-earthquake camps sharply decline and as international aid dollars wither.

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