Mass cholera vaccination program stalls in Haiti

A mass cholera vaccination campaign has stalled in Haiti while thousands wait to be inoculated.

With spring rains beginning, cholera cases on the island nation are beginning to climb. Meanwhile, large stocks of a cholera vaccine are sitting in coolers. Vaccination teams are reportedly trained and willing recipients are ready, but the campaign has stalled due to concerns voiced by a national ethics committee, according to NPR.

Dr. Vanessa Rouzier works for a Haitian medical group GHESKIO, which is responsible for organizing the project in Port-au-Prince. Along with the nonprofit Partners in Health, which is sponsoring the operation near the outbreak's origin in the rural Artibonite River valley, the campaign has been in the works for more than a year.

"We know it's going to rain, we know it's going to flood, so we are afraid we are wasting precious time," Rouzier said, NPR reports.

The project is not without some controversy. Initially, it was opposed by a previous Haitian government, in part because the World Health Organization and the Pan American Health Organization were against it. In addition, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention opposed it, though privately.

The WHO, however, has since approved a $1-a-dose vaccine that has been made ready for use in Haiti.

The PAHO then came out in favor of the campaign and the current Haitian government indicated its approval in December. The CDC's representative in Haiti said that it is also interested in the outcome and is supportive.

The green light is currently awaiting approval from a national ethics committee that wants assurances that the drug is no longer experimental.

Critics of the vaccination project continue to say that it would be better to provide Haitians with clean water and better sanitation. Rouzier said that Haiti must do both to stem the illness.

"Fixing the sanitation problem and giving access to potable water is the answer," Rouzier said, NPR reports. "But let's be realistic. When is that going to happen? And how many people can we allow to die in the meantime?"

Even if the campaign continues, it will only reach approximately one percent of the population. Experts said that to bring cholera under control they will need to vaccinate millions of people living in high risk areas by the next rainy season.