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Preventing child deaths in Haiti and Latin America

In Haiti, one in every 14 deaths among children aged under five is caused by diarrhoea and at least half of these deaths are preventable.

Over recent years, the outbreak of cholera has dominated the headlines when it comes to health news on Haiti. But one of the most common killers of Haitian children is diarrhoea. The illness can quickly lead to severe dehydration and is responsible for the deaths of many young children. (The United Nations has recently announced details of a new action plan to eradicate deaths from severe diarrhoea by 2025.)

Around half of all diarrhoea-related deaths in Haiti are caused by the rotavirus, though the illness is preventable when children receive the rotavirus vaccine. The Haitian government is therefore taking action. An Alertnet article by the ROTA Council reports that the vaccine will be now be introduced into Haiti’s national immunisation programme, with support from the GAVI alliance.

Haiti is the last of five countries in the Americas which are eligible to introduce rotavirus vaccines through GAVI and joins 16 other Latin American nations which have already introduced the vaccine. While improving drinking water, sanitation and hygiene practices can help prevent other forms of diarrhoea, such measures do not adequately protect against the rotavirus. Therefore, immunising children with the vaccine is the best method of protecting them.

In Mexico and Brazil, for example, deaths caused by diarrhoea among children under the age of five were reduced by nearly a third following the introduction of the rotavirus vaccine. Significant declines have also been observed in other South American countries such as El Salvador, Panama and Nicaragua. And there is a financial saving for health service systems, because the number of child hospitalisations and doctor visits drops.

One reason why so many Latin American nations have already been able to include the rotavirus vaccine in their immunisation programmes is because of the Pan American Health Organisation’s ‘Revolving Fund for Vaccine Procurement’. This is a scheme which supports the bulk purchase of vaccines and medical equipment, thus introducing economies of scale for producers and lowering the purchase cost for buyers. The vast majority of vaccines used by Latin American countries are now purchased through the fund.

These vaccines reach over 40 million people, providing vital protection against threats such as the rotavirus and polio, and saving the lives of many of the region’s children.

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