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Haiti - Country in crisis

Reaching children with life-saving vaccines

© UNICEF 2004/Haiti/Delvigne-Jean
Around 1.3 million children are being immunized in Haiti this summer.

By Thierry Delvigne-Jean

Port-au-Prince, 25 June 2004 − “This is the heart of the immunization campaign in Haiti,” says UNICEF Immunization Officer Enrique Cuevas as we enter the dimly lit warehouse. The cool room offers a nice contrast to the hot summer day.

The room is filled with boxes of various sizes and shapes. “All the vaccines for the campaign are here; there are measles and polio vaccines, vitamin A, syringes, soaps… Here we have DT vaccines that have just arrived this morning,” he says, pointing to a pile of boxes near the entrance (DT refers to combined diphtheria/tetanus vaccine).

Cuevas is responsible for organizing and coordinating the nationwide campaign in Haiti, which has the lowest immunization coverage in the Western hemisphere. Currently about half of all Haitian children do not receive routine immunization against preventable diseases.

The campaign started last April in the border region between Haiti and the Dominican Republic. This summer, more than 1.3 million children under 5 will be immunized against polio and measles and will receive Vitamin A supplements. A quarter of a million women will also be immunized against tetanus.

“Our work is to make sure that we are reaching the most remote areas of the country, and that the vaccines arrive at the right place, at the right time,” says Cuevas.

Today Cuevas is monitoring the first round of the campaign in Port-au-Prince. No place is off limits: From the hot and crowded streets of Cité Soleil, one of the poorest neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, to the hilly streets of Petionville on the outskirts of the city, more than 1,200 vaccinators in teams of two are going door to door – visiting every house – to vaccinate children against polio.

© UNICEF 2004/Haiti/Delvigne-Jean
A health worker chalks a sign on a house to indicate a child has just been vaccinated.

“The success of the campaign depends on logistics,” explains Cuevas. “And every detail counts: From making sure that vaccines arrive in good condition and go through customs without delay, to hiring and training the vaccinators, providing food and water to the teams, and printing the vaccination cards….”

The challenges are numerous. The recent political conflict has severely damaged the health infrastructure, which was already in bad shape. Routine immunization activities were curtailed throughout the country because of insecurity, decreasing vaccine stockpiles and the breakdown of the cold chain – the refrigeration system required for vaccines - in the most affected areas.

Data gathered during the first round of vaccinations conducted last month in the border region revealed that 37 per cent of the children from birth to 11 months had never been vaccinated before.

No effort has been spared to spread the word about the campaign. An army of town criers has been announcing the immunization drive through the streets, markets and public places in communities all over the country. Hundreds of posters and banners have been posted in cities and towns, and 1.9 million flyers have been distributed in churches, schools and hospitals.

For the children, who are unaware of the logistics that go into a campaign of this scope, these potentially life-saving vaccines mean the chance for a healthy childhood.



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Reaching Haiti’s children

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