US, Haiti kick off vaccination campaigns

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U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, center, talks to a health worker during a visit to Eliazar Germain hospital 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. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti, the United States and international partners are launching a nationwide vaccination campaign in the Caribbean country that seeks to curb or prevent infectious diseases, health officials said Monday.

On a two-day visit to Haiti, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the effort to vaccinate Haitians against such diseases as diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough is critical because the country is especially vulnerable to diseases brought from outside.

"We know the population in Haiti remains at risk for cases imported from other parts of the world because of low vaccine coverage rates here for both polio and measles rubella among infants," Sebelius told reporters following a tour of the Eliazar Germain hospital in Haiti's capital. "That's why an important part of the reconstruction efforts after the January 2010 earthquake response was rebuilding the childhood immunization infrastructure."

Immunization rates are low in Haiti. Coverage for measles and polios for 1-year olds, for example, is only a little more than half of the country's 10 million inhabitants, according to the World Health Organization.

And the ability for infectious diseases to spread quickly in Haiti is evident. A cholera epidemic has ravaged the country since it surfaced a few months after the 2010 earthquake and gone on to kill more than 7,000 people and sicken 530,000 more, according to Haitian health officials. Scientific studies say a unit of peacekeepers from Nepal inadvertently brought the disease from their homeland, where the disease is endemic.

The campaign launched Monday is ambitious and, according to Health Minister Dr. Florence Duperval Guillaume, seeks to vaccinate 90 percent of Haiti's youth population. The vaccines will be free, she added.

The vaccines aim to immunize children for measles rubella and polio and other diseases, and immunization will be staggered. Vaccination for measles rubella and polio will begin Saturday.

The other vaccine to be introduced Monday is pentavalent, which is used to prevent diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenza type b, a bacterium that causes meningitis and pneumonia. It also began today but will be broadly available in June.

The campaign will be supported in part by the GAVI Alliance, a group of international health organizations, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. In 2012, the GAVI Alliance will provide Haiti with $ 7.5 million for the pentavalent vaccine in Haiti. The Haitian government will contribute $177,500, which is being paid for by the CDC. GAVI also provided $100,000 to the Haitian government to train health workers.

The CDC is paying another $3.5 million — $2.5 million for the measles rubella campaign and $1 million for the polio one.

The campaign is part of a broader effort announced this month to vaccinate Haitians.

The Boston-based Partners in Health and the Haitian-run Gheskio Center have teamed up to distribute a two-dose, oral vaccine for cholera to as many as 50,000 Haitians in the capital and in a rice-farming community in the countryside. In the end, the groups plan to vaccinate 100,000 people, or 1 percent of Haiti's population.

Distribution of the Shanchol cholera vaccine was supposed to begin in January but was delayed because an ethics committee in the Health Ministry expressed concerns that the groups wanted to use the vaccine as a research project rather than as a pilot project. It wasn't until last week that the Health Ministry approved the roll out.