My friends laugh at me. My patients laugh at me. And now my Haitian friends and colleagues can laugh at me when they hear me say…I love vaccines! I really do. Vaccines save lives. There has been a 99% decrease in the incidence of polio since the start of a worldwide effort to eradicate the disease through vaccination in 1988. Prior to widespread measles vaccinations, about 2.6 million people died annually from the disease. Those numbers are now estimated to be around 158,000 a year. Vaccines save lives.
So imagine my happiness when Julie and I arrive in Haiti and Fenel is going over our schedule of events for the week and it includes a vaccine day at the clinic! Yay vaccines! I had a mental image of screaming children and crying babies and Julie handing out piwilis (lollipops). Saving lives. I’ll admit that I was a tiny bit disappointed to find out that this was a specific vaccine campaign – tetanus shot program for women to help decrease maternal and neonatal tetanus. But I quickly got over my disappointment of not having the grand epic piki (shot) event that I was envisioning when I realized that this was still pretty amazing, for two reasons.
First, neonatal tetanus is a major problem worldwide. Most Haitian women give birth at home. Cutting the umbilical cord in unsanitary conditions is a huge risk factor in contracting neonatal tetanus, as the tetanus bacterium lives in the soil. But vaccinating women can significantly cut down on the risk of developing neonatal tetanus. In fact, the WHO (World Health Organization) estimated that there was a 93% decrease in neonatal deaths due to tetanus from 1980 to 2010 because of a campaign to vaccinate women and mothers.
Second, our clinic staff found this program and implemented it throughout the villages. They obtained the necessary paperwork, vaccines, supplies (needles, alcohol swabs, vaccine record cards, etc.). Then they went out with a bullhorn and announced in each village that there was going to be a vaccine program for women and made sure that they were able to reach as many teenagers, pregnant women, moms and older women as possible. It was amazing to watch!
I will admit, as an American healthcare provider, it made me cringe at first that this vaccine campaign took place outside at “the round” (the community marketplace/hangout outside of the clinic) and without gloves. However, I quickly got over that as I realized that the risk of getting tetanus far outweighed the risk of any local skin infection. And Finelia (Madame Mompoint) gave a good piki!
The school girls all giggled and pushed each other forward and acted scared, but most of them barely even reacted to getting the shot. Julie and I couldn’t help but comment on how different this would be if it were here – crying, whimpering, combative American girls. The cultural differences are so striking.
When we had our meeting with the clinic staff, they told us about another government-funded vaccine program that would provide a variety of vaccines for all of the villages on a regular basis. This is something that the community has wanted and it is so amazing to see it happening right before our eyes. I am so excited to see the development of this program and to be a part of the growth of Fanmi Lasante and its staff. Again, we thank you all for your support and hope you will continue to look for ways to be involved with us.
(All information about vaccines and vaccine-preventable illnesses was taken from the CDC and WHO websites)