Haiti health workers to give cholera vaccine

The chief advocates for a cholera vaccination program in Haiti will begin distributing the vaccine this weekend after a government ethics committee gave approval following months of delay, a project organizer said Friday.

Jonathan Lascher, Haiti program manager for the Boston-based Partners in Health, said more than 200 trained health workers will start administering the oral vaccine on Sunday to almost 50,000 people outside the western port city of Saint Marc.

A Health Ministry ethics committee initially blocked the campaign because it mistook it for a research project rather than a pilot program that could be expanded throughout the Caribbean nation, Lascher said. The vaccination campaign had been planned to begin in January.

"We're all set to go and there are no more bureaucratic hoops to jump through," Lascher said by telephone. The ethics committee "understands that it's not a research project."

Haitian health officials couldn't be reached for comment Friday.

PIH and partner Gheskio Center, a Haitian nonprofit supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development, plan to vaccinate almost 100,000 Haitians in the Saint Marc area and in a downtrodden neighborhood of the capital as the country's rainy season begins and threatens to spread the waterborne disease.

Gheskio reportedly began administering the first of two required doses of the vaccine this week in Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince. Gheskio director Jean William Pape didn't respond to email messages seeking comment Friday.

The proposal for a vaccine campaign in Haiti surfaced soon after cholera emerged in October 2010, when U.N. peacekeepers from Nepal apparently introduced the disease inadvertently, according to several scientific studies. Since then, cholera has killed more than 7,000 people and sickened 530,000 more, health officials say, giving Haiti the highest cholera infection rate in the world.

It seemed obvious that Haiti would benefit from such a vaccine but there were obstacles from the beginning.

Some public health experts questioned the program because it would inoculate only 100,000 people, or 1 percent of Haiti's population, and could deplete the world's stock of available cholera vaccine, potentially putting people at risk in other vulnerable places. At the time, there was only one cholera vaccine on the global market. A second, Shanchol, wasn't approved by the World Health Organization until September.

The approval was needed so U.N. agencies like UNICEF could procure the vaccine.

There were other concerns about the vaccine. The humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders argued that the money for the vaccine, whose immunity wears off within three years, would be better spent on improving Haiti's inadequate sanitation, a source for spreading cholera. PIH's co-founder, Dr. Paul Farmer, countered that the vaccine could be distributed without compromising efforts to develop Haiti's water and sewer system.

The project is expected to cost $1.3 million. The American Red Cross is contributing $1 million of that, said Tamara Braunstein, a spokeswoman for the Red Cross.