In Haiti: Rebuilding a Healthier Future With Vaccines

On a recent Sunday in Port-au-Prince, a man in a bright yellow T-shirt and aviator sunglasses wielded a megaphone, calling out directions to long lines of determined mothers and their children waiting in the hot sun.

In post-earthquake Haiti -- where signs of the devastation still linger two years on -- the women weren't lined up waiting for food or to seek more permanent shelter than the camps where hundreds of thousands of people still live.

Instead, they sat on wooden benches inside a large tent and waited patiently to have their children vaccinated.

This was part of an effort that started the day before, with a ceremony at the Palais Municipal de Delmas to kick off a nationwide vaccination campaign. Health officials are targeting measles, rubella and polio and also introducing pentavalent vaccine, one shot against five diseases.

This would be a remarkable achievement in any country but is even more so in Haiti, where dozens of hospitals were damaged and even the Ministry of Health building was destroyed in the 2010 earthquake.

Questions have been raised, understandably, about whether the international community has done enough to help.

But the nationwide vaccination campaign is a powerful sign of Haitians helping themselves. The campaign has been supported by several organizations including the GAVI Alliance, the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), UNICEF, and others. Yet the drive to protect people's health and save lives, particularly children's lives, is something that unites Haitians.

Dr. Florence Guillaume, Haiti's Minister of Health and Population, said it best at the campaign kickoff when she noted that reaching 95 percent vaccination coverage will contribute to the health security of all Haitians, whether they're rich or poor, living in the cities or the countryside because viruses and bacteria don't discriminate.

As Norway's former Minister of Health, I know that preventive health measures in general, and vaccines in particular, are the most effective way to improve public health. It is gratifying to see the commitment of Minister Guillaume, her colleagues and the health workers to ensure that their people get access to these lifesaving health tools. It is impressive to see how they accomplish this despite challenging surroundings.

I experienced this in a small way by giving some polio vaccinations and helping to protect a little girl named Madeleine with just two drops.

In the first year that pentavalent vaccine is available in Haiti, about 211,000 children will receive it. Pentavalent protects children against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis (also known as whooping cough), Haemophilus influenzae type B (Hib), and hepatitis B (hepB). Every year worldwide, Hib and pertussis each kill almost 200,000 children.

Haiti has also been approved to provide vaccines against pneumonia and rotavirus with GAVI's support. These vaccines will address two of the leading causes of child deaths and decrease the number of Haitian children under five who don't make it to their fifth birthday.

These young people may someday be parents themselves, lining up to ensure that their own children get a healthy start in life with vaccines.

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