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US, Haiti Launch Vaccination Campaign

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, April 16, 2012.

An ambitious campaign is under way in Haiti to provide the same protection against deadly childhood diseases that children in developed countries enjoy. U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, along with the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and international providers, helped the Haitian government launch this program.

CDC head, Dr. Thomas Frieden called the program a major step forward. He said the U.S. government worked with Haiti on health issues before that country's deadly 2010 earthquake, but that after a cholera epidemic erupted several months later, efforts were stepped up. A vaccination program to prevent cholera is already under way. And now, another campaign has started, with the goal of protecting infants and children under the age of five from deadly childhood diseases, including measles.

Dr. Frieden said although measles does not exist in Haiti now, health officials have seen a recent increase in outbreaks. They are concerned because travelers may introduce measles, which is highly infectious.

"The country is certainly at risk for measles so one major effort is to improve measles immunity to protect children in Haiti," he explained.

Another part of the program is a pentavalent vaccine - one that protects against five childhood diseases: diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, hepatitis B and the bacterial illness haemophilus influenza Type B (known as Hib).

"Currently, Haiti only vaccinates against three of those diseases," noted the doctor. "So for the first time, Haiti will be vaccinating against five childhood diseases. And that will prevent literally thousands of deaths in the months and years to come."

Dr. Frieden said other vaccines to protect against pneumonia and diarrheal diseases will soon be introduced as part of this effort. In addition to being "the right thing to do," he said it is also personally gratifying.

"It's very exciting and very encouraging to see life-saving vaccines being delivered in slums and rural areas in Haiti," he said. "And those vaccines are going to protect literally tens of thousands of children from getting very sick and tens of thousands of children from dying in the years to come."

Until this campaign started, the vaccination rate for children in Haiti was below 60 percent. Dr. Frieden said that the CDC is helping the country improve its routine vaccination program so children born in the years to come will have a greater chance to become healthy adults.

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