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At a glance: Haiti

Social mobilizers throughout Haiti spread the word about vaccines

© UNICEF/2010/Monier
Omene Charles, a community leader and social mobilizer in Haiti's recent vaccination drive, uses a megaphone spread the word about immunization.

By Cifora Monier

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 12 May 2010 – Haiti is still struggling to cope with the aftermath of the devastating 12 January earthquake, which claimed more than 200,000 lives, destroyed schools, homes, and water and sanitation systems and left more than 1 million people homeless.

Immunization activities were severely affected by the quake. Many health-care facilities were damaged or destroyed, and the interruption of fuel and power supplies has had a major impact on health services. Facing low vaccination rates across the country – which pre-date the earthquake – UNICEF and its partners are now working to reach every child in Haiti with routine immunization.

Vaccinations resume

In Port-au-Prince, young mother Kelida Henrisme said she had been unable to access vaccines for her three-month-old baby, Kenley. Immunization programmes throughout the capital were temporarily disrupted by the quake.

© UNICEF/2010/Monier
Kelida Henrisme holds her three-month-old son Kenley as he receives his first vaccination since Haiti's devastating earthquake in January.

In recent weeks, however, health workers have been travelling through the city alerting families that vaccinations have resumed.

“When I heard the announcement from the megaphone, I decided to take my son immediately to the vaccination post,” said Ms. Henrisme. “I wanted to get my baby vaccinated.”

Omene Charles, a mother of three, has been a social mobilizer in the small Haitian locality of Campo for 19 years. A respected member of her community, she is stopped frequently by warm greetings on her way through Campo’s town centre. Children shout out her name as she walks by.

“I know the importance of vaccinations and I have witnessed firsthand the consequences these illnesses have when children are not vaccinated,” Ms. Charles said. “For this reason, I feel that it is my duty to motivate my people.”

Reaching every child

In her new role with the immunization campaign, Ms. Charles uses a megaphone to spread the word about vaccines. She visits churches and schools, and goes door-to-door on foot, sometimes walking as many as 20 km per day.

To vaccinate the maximum number of children, the campaign’s mobile teams travel to some of the country’s most difficult-to-reach communities.

Haiti’s latest immunization drive is part of the annual Vaccination Week of the Americas, a regional campaign spanning 44 countries. The 2010 vaccination week, which wrapped up on 6 May, reached some 60,000 children under teh age of five in Haiti alone, protecting them against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, measles and rubella. The children also received vitamin A supplements and de-worming tablets.

More vaccination rounds are being planned for the coming months and will continue to be supported by UNICEF, its partners and the Haitian authorities.

“It is vital that we reach every child,” said UNICEF Immunization Specialist Dr. Yasmine Chalhoub. She noted that another essential element was to inform parents of the consequences of not vaccinating their children.

A long-standing need

In addition to restoring the vaccine programmes disrupted by the earthquake, vaccinators face the challenge of confronting immunization rates that have historically been low throughout the country – even prior to the earthquake. According to the most recent data, the number of Haitian children vaccinated against preventable diseases is as low as 52 per cent in many areas.

“The work is crucial,” said Dr. Chalhoub. “Vaccinators and social mobilizers are the key to ensuring the success of the campaign and we should encourage them to reach out more effectively to their communities.” By doing so, she added, Haiti also takes agency over its own essential vaccine programmes.

“This is the most effective way of ensuring ownership of routine life-saving immunizations,” noted Dr. Chalhoub. 

For Ms. Charles and other social mobilizers, the challenge carries great weight and promises important results. “Even after the earthquake, I feel responsible for [the community’s] well-being,” she said. “Parents need only a simple explanation to allow their children to be immunized.”



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