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Haiti launches vaccination campaign against fatal childhood diseases

A year after Haiti launched an ambitious vaccination campaign against several childhood diseases including measles and polio, the country announced Saturday a similar effort against tetanus, and a virus that causes severe, fatal diarrhea in children under the age of 5.

“To protect children against rotavirus is extremely important, especially in a place like Haiti where we also are seeing not a lot of high access to water and sanitation,” Dr. Carissa Etienne, newly appointed director of the Pan American Health Organization, said from Port-au-Prince.

Etienne was among several medical professionals who joined Haiti’s health ministry in launching the nationwide vaccination effort. Like last year, this year’s campaign is coinciding with the World Health Organization’s/PAHO’s Immunization Week in the Americas. The campaign kicked off a week ago with the goal of vaccinating 44 million adults and children throughout the hemisphere.

“This is the time when we draw attention to the importance of vaccinations and call on parents to bring their children to be vaccinated, and governments to invest in immunizations,” Etienne said.

In Haiti, authorities and international aid groups say the goal is to save the lives of more than 250,000 children under the age of 5 against rotavirus, which can affect children’s learning and lead to death. They also want to protect 1.2 million women, ages 15 to 49, against tetanus and neonatal tetanus. More than half of all cases of neonatal tetanus cases in the hemisphere are in Haiti, and contribute to the country’s high infant mortality rate of 57 per 1,000 live births.

“Too many babies and mothers are still exposed to maternal and neonatal tetanus in Haiti,” said Edouard Beigbeder, UNICEF representative in Haiti.

UNICEF and its partners are seeking to immunize more than a million women of reproductive age in 65 districts in Haiti identified as high-risk for maternal and neonatal tetanus, Beigbeder said. Haiti has one of the lowest vaccination rates in the Americas.

Joining UNICEF in its effort is the GAVI Alliance, a public-private health initiative that last year provided Haiti with $7.5 million for the pentavalent vaccine to protect more than 200,000 children against five diseases including diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough. Helen Evans, deputy CEO of GAVI Alliance, said she’s been meeting with Haitian officials to find out how the vaccination efforts are going.

“Immunization rates in Haiti are quite disconcerting. It has quite a lot to do with the poor resources and limited funds, it’s also parents not being aware of the enormous value of immunizations,” Evans said.

GAVI will provide $4.7 million for the free rotavirus vaccines, which are being targeted at newborns ages six weeks and 10 weeks old.

“Rotavirus vaccine offers the best hope for preventing the deadly, dehydrating diarrhea that rotavirus causes,” Evans said.

Rotavirus is highly contagious and not responsive to antibiotics. Countries that have introduced the rotavirus vaccine have experienced significant reductions in hospitalizations and deaths of children from severe diarrhea, Evans said.

Diarrhea is a leading cause of death among children under the age of 5 in Haiti. Meanwhile, more than 2,200 Haitian children die each year of rotavirus, GAVI said.

Etienne said that while the vaccination campaigns have proven successful, challenges remain in getting parents to see routine vaccination as part of their lives.

“We are hoping that with this campaign we can not only deliver vaccines, but also make the case for the routine vaccinations,” she said.