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Child Health Week in Haiti

During the second week of November, despite the growing unrest that preceded the general elections, Haiti launched a vast campaign to deliver vitamin A supplements, de-worming capsules and vaccines to children aged 5 and under. The effort to reach more than one million infants also sought to contain the cholera outbreak by distributing oral rehydration salts and disseminating information on preventing and treating that disease.

Child Health Weeks are a strategy that has been tested on a pilot basis in different parts of Haiti, but a $5.5 million IDB grant allowed the Haitian Ministry of Public Health (MSPP) to plan the first nationwide campaign in five years. Violent protests in several cities and towns initially limited the coverage to six out of Haiti’s 10 departments, but a foundation was laid to repeat the effort every six months for the next three years.

In light of the cholera outbreak, the MSPP adjusted the timing of the campaign in each region of the country. The department of Artibonite, where the disease was first detected, was the last one to implement the Child Health Week, at the end of December.

Providing vitamins and micronutrients to children in their crucial formative years is one of the cheapest and most effective ways to decrease child mortality, basically by boosting children’s immune systems. In Haiti, more than 20,000 infants die every year of treatable diseases such as diarrhea and respiratory infections.

Children with even a mild vitamin A deficiency and no clinical symptoms such as night blindness face higher death rates. While this vitamin can be acquired by drinking whole milk or eating mangoes – a fruit readily available in Haiti – most children’s diets lack it in sufficient quantities to bolster their immune systems. Before the campaign, fewer than 15 percent of Haitian infants received potentially lifesaving supplements twice a year, even though capsules cost as little as 2 cents.

Regular de-worming is also fundamental for young children, especially in countries where parasites such as hookworms and roundworms are endemic. When they infest a person’s intestinal tract, these parasites can cause anorexia, anemia, stunted growth and interfere with intellectual development, and a greater propensity to disease by weakening the immune system.

Along with the vitamin A capsules, de-worming treatment and vaccines, all children received a packet of oral rehydration salts, which parents can use if a child suffers severe diarrhea, one of the symptoms of cholera. Infants who were already passing watery feces received three packets of oral rehydration salts and zinc, which can reduce the duration and severity of diarrhea.

In addition, the campaign encouraged lactating mothers to extend the breast-feeding of their children up to their second birthday as a means to supply them a safe, nutritious, as well inexpensive food.

The Child Health Week campaign was also noteworthy because, rather than being executed by an external agency, it was led by the MSPP, which used its own planning, monitoring and procurement systems to carry out the effort.

The ministry also coordinated the efforts of several donor agencies, including the World Health Organization, UNICEF, the World Food Program, USAID and the Canadian NGO Micronutrient Initiative.

While Child Health Week campaigns will continue at least for the next three years, Haiti and its international partners are working to strengthen the country’s health services so all children may receive micronutrients and immunizations during regular medical checkups, said IDB social protection specialist Meri Helleranta.

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