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Hospital and Community Health System’s Plan to Stem Zika in Rural Haiti Receives $350,000 Emergency Response Grant

The grant allows for hospital to provide critical staff training, reproductive supplies to launch its largest family planning campaign to reach 610-square-mile population

Several decades ago, public health pioneers Dr. Larry Mellon and his wife, Gwen, built one of the developing world’s first community-based healthcare systems. Through preventative education campaigns, mobile healthcare posts and community healthcare workers that went door-to-door, they solved the seemingly insurmountable challenge of eliminating Tetanus, Polio and other preventable diseases within Hopital Albert Schweitzer Haiti’s (HAS) 610-square-mile mountainous service area located in Deschapelles, Haiti. The same approach, which built trusted relationships with the Haitian people, including traditional birth attendants, will be used to combat Zika’s potential detrimental health impacts thanks to a $350,000 emergency response grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The grant will allow HAS to undertake its most comprehensive family planning effort to date.

“Our founders put the utmost importance on protecting and saving every single possible life, and it’s vital that we protect the most vulnerable population affected by Zika: unborn children,” said HAS Board Chair John Walton. “Research indicates that the first year of an epidemic causes the most harm on populations because virus-fighting antibodies are not yet active. This means that we have to move swiftly in order to track pregnant women suspected of carrying the virus and educate reproductive-aged women on the importance of effective family planning. We are most grateful to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for their support, which we know will save lives.”

The grant will allow for HAS’s network of 45 community healthcare workers to collaborate with nearly 300 birth attendants and approximately 100 healthcare volunteers in delivering the hospital’s largest family planning effort to date. Three week-long family planning campaigns will commence within the next 2 months targeting women of reproductive age with information about Zika, its effect on pregnant women, and the importance of family planning to prevent birth defects. The grant also provides significant staff training on the insertion of longer-term contraceptives (IUDs and implants) as well as an increase in overall contraceptive supplies. In addition, the grant enables HAS staff to bolster their outbreak monitoring capacity through the implementation of a facility-and community-based Zika surveillance system. This system will be used to track suspected Zika cases, specifically pregnant women, and will provide an effective body of research as it relates to Zika’s impact in the Caribbean.

“The Zika Virus has the potential to be very detrimental for mothers and infants in many parts of the Caribbean, especially Haiti where the birth rate is high and where window screens, air-conditioning and modern medical care is minimal,” said Walton. “But we’re focused on the strategic advantage that we have, and that’s the Haitian people.”

In 2015 alone, HAS community healthcare workers made nearly 80,000 home visits, and provided life-saving vaccinations, malnutrition screenings and vital public health education.

“That number is remarkable, especially when you consider how hard it is to get from place to place. In some cases, we’re talking hours of steep walks on unpaved paths. The work that they do is tremendous and critical,” said Walton.

Since February, HAS has been tracking suspected Zika cases at the hospital and four community health centers, and provided vital Zika education to over 8,300 people. As of August 990 suspected Zika cases were seen at HAS, 70% of those cases were women suspected to be carrying the virus based on the tell-tale Zika symptoms including conjunctivitis, rash and fever. Zika tests are not readily available and affordable within remote Haiti.

According to the CDC, Zika has been known to cause severe birth defects such as microcephaly. This is a very serious condition where the brain of the fetus does not develop properly when the mother is exposed to Zika during pregnancy. In addition to microcephaly, other problems such as eye defects, hearing loss, and impaired growth have been detected among fetuses and infants infected with Zika virus before birth.

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