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UNICEF Launches Emergency Vaccination Campaign in Peru - 2003-09-25

The United Nations Children's Fund, UNICEF, is conducting an emergency vaccination campaign against Hepatitis B for two ethnic groups in a remote region of the Peruvian Amazon jungle. The existence of the two groups could be threatened by a prolonged outbreak of the disease.

A UNICEF spokesman, Damien Personnaz, says the two Peruvian tribes, the Candoshis and the Sharpas, could face extinction within 10 or 12 years, if if preventive action, especially among children, is not taken to staunch a mysterious outbreak of Hepatitis B.

"What is worrying is that, frankly, we do not have information," he said. "We do not know how this Hepatitis B started to spread in this region. We do not know why the death, or morbidity, is so high. Because, with Hepatitis B, you can be very sick for a very long time, but you actually do not die within a period of 20 years, 25 years. In that case, it seems that the Indians are dying very quickly."

UNICEF says Peru's health minister asked for help after 40 deaths were recorded last year among the Candoshi ethnic group. In 2001, 145 cases of Hepatitis B were reported among this group, but the number of deaths is unknown. The total population of the Candoshi and Sharpa numbers only about 3,000.

Mr. Personnaz says UNICEF's goal is to vaccinate all the two groups' 150 babies against Hepatitis B three times before they are one year old. He says this is important to try to stamp out the disease, which can cause liver failure.

"What is a challenge is that we try to achieve the vaccination within 24 hours after the birth to avoid contagion directly from the mother," he said. "So, that is a very challenging work, because it means that we also need to mobilize the local population to be able to alert us or the health authorities that a newborn baby is coming up."

The two ethnic groups live scattered in 124 communities along the Pastaza and Morona rivers in the Amazon basin. The area is so remote that travel from any of the communities to the closest health center may take up to four days.

Mr. Personnaz says that just getting the vaccines to these people is, in and of itself, a daunting task.