In the United States it is now common practice to receive the TDAP vaccine in one’s early preteens. This vaccine prevents against tetanus (lockjaw), diphtheria, and whooping cough, three often deadly diseases. In our catchment area, we have successfully eradicated infant tetanus by vaccinating pregnant women, lowering our maternal and infant mortality rate, but diphtheria continues to be a low-level but significant medical concern for our treatment teams.
Diphtheria symptoms are similar to those of the common cold, but, left untreated, can cause heart failure, paralysis, and death. It is also dangerously contagious, leaving all who come in contact with a symptomatic patient at a high risk of contracting the disease.
The most common immunization given for diphtheria in Haiti is the DAT vaccine, given first to newborns and then requiring three booster vaccines over the course of the first few years of life. In Haiti as of 2011, 88% of newborns received the first vaccine, but only 63% received the first booster and rates declined for the last two boosters accordingly.
Access to sustained primary care is a major barrier to the immunization of today’s Haitian children. Our SCI team works hard to provide this life saving healthcare to our community but too many adults have never been immunized and the elderly are at increased risk of complications as a result of contracting diphtheria. As an added complication, production of the DAT vaccine is not enough to keep up with the current need in countries across the global south.
How HAS Prevents the Spread of Diphtheria
The hospital has always received a few cases of diphtheria a year, but recently we have received more than usual – not enough to believe there is an outbreak – but enough to have us implementing our public health measures.
When a patient comes into the hospital and is diagnosed with diphtheria, they are immediately placed in isolation so as not to endanger more people. Then, the hospital staff makes sure that they did not come in close contact with other patients waiting for care. Our SCI team follows up with the family members of the patients and then establish a “chain of contact”, retracing the patients’ steps to identify any others who may be at risk of contracting diphtheria.
This places a great financial burden on the hospital. We take these public health measures to save lives, since Haiti’s Ministry of Public Health has limited resources to monitor for possible diphtheria outbreaks. If we neglect these public health interventions, we could be flooded by patients who need a higher level of care than we can provide to all of them – there is only so much isolation room.
Alumni and friends of the hospital can be most helpful in these efforts by making an unrestricted donation online today. Unrestricted monies give our medical team the flexibility to act quickly in the face of various public health concerns to make sure we are well equipped to save lives.