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Diphtheria and Haiti: On The Brink Of Avoidable Mass Mortality


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Diphtheria is an upper respiratory tract illness, which left untreated, can be deadly. According to activist and disaster relief worker Sean Penn, on the shattered streets of Haiti on May 7, “This is exactly the kind of thing that can kill masses of people.” 

It was too late Thursday evening for Oriel, a young boy who Mr.Penn and others desperately tried to save in a frantic prolonged search for an antitoxin, traveling from hospital to hospital. He died of diphtheria in an unprepared nation, despite the presence of scores of well intentioned aid and relief organizations.

So what does diphtheria vaccine cost? Surprisingly little. Visit the Centers for Disease Control Vaccine Price List. As of April 23, 2010, a 10 pack of the vaccine can cost, at a non-governmental rate, $18.23. Logistics, refrigeration and proper distribution are the challenges, it’s not the cost.

According to Mr. Penn, the vaccine is not being distributed in Haiti, where it’s needed the most right now. Something must be done, immediately, he urges in this interview with journalist Anderson Cooper. (See CNN video, above).

Penn is right. Relief agencies are not prepared or acting quickly enough with life-saving inoculations . Pleading from the streets of Port-au-Prince, he correctly protests, “Nobody can say this is any surprise…this is the beginning unless everybody realizes the disaster is still on…There won’t be a Haiti to rebuild without the people of Haiti.”

With vaccine aid to Haiti moving at a glacial pace, what can we do to help what Dr. Sanjay Gupta characterizes as a “preventable, stupid death” on a mass scale? The frustrating and horrible last 11 hours of this once animated 15 year old victim’s life is an early warning. He is the first confirmed case of Diphtheria in Haiti in the aftermath of the January earthquake.

We must not be complacent. As donors of aid to organizations on the ground, it is time for us to stand up for accountability and responsible action, so that the money donated to save lives is actually spent, as quickly as possible, to prevent further population loss.

I, for one, am alarmed and angry that millions upon millions of contributed dollars have not been used to prevent short-term, but avoidable, carnage.  (See Miami Herald article of 4.27.10). Stories about monies being retained for future Haitian relief programs abound. As people contract diseases in the aftermath of disasters, donors from around the world need to know their urgent contributions are put to use proactively, not held up in bank accounts for projects that are months off.

The administration of vaccines does not take as long as it does to provide new infrastructure for the island nation.  If we put our minds to the task, hospitals can be supplied appropriate vaccines in just a day with the right logistics. We need to help Haitians cope with their exceedingly harsh environment with an immediate vaccination program for Diphtheria and other threats.

We should join Sean’s voice with ours. There is still time to act with vaccines, but the clock is ticking.

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Editor’s Update (5.11.10)- Despite vaccinations, infectious diseases are a very real concern. The Associated Press reported from Port-au-Prince on 5.9.10 that UN health officials are stating “there is no evidence the bacterial disease is spreading…” Citing the CNN story featuring the comments of Sean Penn (see video above), an official with the World Health Organization (WHO) is quoted by the AP as stating Oriel’s case was “isolated.” According to the AP, however, the WHO official “added that concerns about the threat of infectious diseases breaking out across the quake-ravaged areas are well-founded. Many of the 1.3 million people displaced by the magnitude-7 earthquake are living in squalid camps where infection can spread easily.” The report states that 900,000 have been vaccinated against the threat of diphtheria and other disease in April, 2010, and more vaccinations are planned for June.  Question, why was it so hard for Mr. Penn and others to find the vaccine in hospitals?

Editor’s Update (5.11.10)- Vaccination programs have taken place in Haiti. According to the UN News Centre on April 29, 2010, “An estimated 60,000 Haitian children under the age of five will receive life-saving vaccinations in a major immunization campaign that kicks off in the Caribbean country on Saturday, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) announced today. Routine immunization of children in Haiti was severely disrupted by the massive earthquake that struck on 12 January. Health facilities were damaged or destroyed, and interruptions to fuel and electricity had a major impact on health services, including the refrigeration system that supports storage and distribution of vaccines, according to UNICEF. Vaccination rates in Haiti were as low as 53 per cent even before the quake, the agency said. Children will receive vaccinations against polio, diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough (pertussis), measles, and rubella during the drive, which will be led by the Haitian health ministry with the support of UNICEF, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO). The campaign will supplement an ongoing programme that began in February and has already reached more than 220,000 children under the age of eight in 687 locations in camps for people displaced by the earthquake.” See full UN article. Question. If electricity is disrupted, thus affecting refrigeration of vaccines, what about using solar power to get medicines cooled until regular electrical service is restored?

[picapp align=”center” wrap=”false” link=”term=HAITI+VACCINATIONS&iid=7813013″ src=”c/2/8/e/Haiti_Wrestles_With_da9b.jpg?adImageId=12826972&imageId=7813013″ width=”500″ height=”333″ /]

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