On July 14, Haiti received its first batch of COVID-19 vaccines — 500,000 doses donated by the U.S government through the COVAX dose-sharing program.
Dr. Marie Gréta Roy Clément, Haiti's Minister of Public Health and Population, thanked the U.S., calling the donation a "gesture of solidarity and mutual aid," and announced that the vaccines would be administered free of charge to Haitians, starting with health workers.
Now comes the hard part.
The challenges of getting the vaccine to Haitians who need it
Rolling out a large-scale COVID-19 vaccination campaign is a daunting task anywhere in the world, but in the current Haitian context, it will be an uphill battle, Jean Gough, UNICEF Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean said.
"When gangs are shooting at each other in the streets, transporting vaccines safely from one health center to the other every day is a victory," Gough said. "Without reliable electricity, keeping a large number of vaccine doses always cool throughout the journey is a feat."
It is also hurricane season, and Haiti is prone to extreme weather events of a sort that would almost certainly complicate vaccine storage and distribution efforts, among other critical activities. Droughts and storms have become more frequent and more intense in recent years due to climate change, ruining harvests and contributing to rising food insecurity and alarming rates of malnutrition. One in three children in Haiti require some form of humanitarian assistance.
Exacerbating the situation is the violence and increasing insecurity in and around Port-au-Prince, which has delayed humanitarian operations and hindered the movement of basic supplies such as food, medicine and fuel.
What it will take to curb the spread of the pandemic in the Americas
"Our toughest job on the ground has yet to begin," Gough said. "Unless these doses get into the arms of Haitian people swiftly and safely, COVID-19 vaccines won’t help save Haitian lives and curb the spread of the pandemic in the Americas."
More donations from well-supplied countries are needed, Gough added. "Most of the Haitian population is at risk of remaining unvaccinated due to the limited availability of doses currently in the country."
High vaccine hesitancy in Haiti
The other challenge is vaccine hesitancy. Preliminary results of a UNICEF-supported perception study conducted in June by the University of Haiti showed that only 22 percent of Haitians would accept the jab.
UNICEF's teams on the ground are working on many fronts to support the vaccination rollout: enhancing communications to tackle misinformation and build trust in the vaccine, enhancing transportation and other logistics and strengthening the country's cold chain. UNICEF has installed some 920 solar refrigerators in Haiti over the past three years to ensure vaccine quality where access to electricity remains unreliable. Additional cold storage rooms are in the works.
To further faciitate the vaccine rollout, UNICEF has also called on armed groups to allow frontline health workers to safely transport, distribute and administer vaccines through humanitarian corridors.
"Our role now is to keep vaccines in appropriate storage conditions, from the airport to their use in all departments of the country," said UNICEF's representative in Haiti Bruno Maes. "With the level of misinformation around vaccines, this vaccination campaign will not be easy.”
Top photo: COVID-19 vaccine doses, donated by the U.S. government as part of the COVAX dose-sharing program, arrive in Port-au-Prince on July 14, 2021.© UNICEF/UN0489200/Fils Guillaume