CHAPEL HILL — Because 4-year-old Miles was vaccinated at Village Pediatrics this year, children in Haiti will have four more vaccines to go around.
It may not seem like much at first glance, but since September, Village Pediatrics patients have made enough $2 donations to a pilot Vaccine Ambassadors program to pay for 6,000 vaccines in the poverty-stricken country.
Miles’ mother Aimee Johnson said the office visit was the first time she heard about the dire need for vaccines in undeveloped countries and how a couple of dollars could help.
“When we brought Miles in for his four-year check up, Dr. Gush told us about the program and gave us some written material. The program makes it very easy to provide a vaccine to another child, and we were happy to do so,” she said.
Jackie Kaufman, Vaccine Ambassador executive director, saw the need firsthand on a mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Health agencies estimate more than 1.5 million children die before reaching their fifth birthday every year from diseases that vaccines can easily prevent. More than 90 percent live in countries with barely accessible health care, where the risk is compounded by malnutrition and tainted water.
“As a parent, I just couldn’t fathom the idea that kids were dying of things that had been preventable for decades,” Kaufman said.
She realized there was no easy way to help and got in touch with former UNC and NBA basketball star Eric Montross, who put her in touch with UNC physician Jacob Lohr, his partner in the nonprofit Fund for Children and Youth. The three founded the Vaccine Ambassadors program in May.
The vaccines are purchased and distributed through the Pan American Health Organization, which has been around for more than 110 years and has access to big discounts on vaccines. All the proceeds, minus credit card fees, go to the program.
It is a unique partnership that reflects American generosity and good will, said PAHO Deputy Director Jon Andrus. Haiti is a priority, because it has one of the Americas’ highest infant mortality rates, with 57 deaths out of every 1,000 live births.
“The setbacks caused by the earthquake and the recent cholera outbreak in Haiti provide American families an opportunity to once again demonstrate to the rest of the world their spirit of good will through this vaccine donation program. From an individual family basis, each donation may be small, but in total, they add up to enormous life saving opportunities,” he said.
Kaufman said the next step is recruiting more clinics and donors. Doctors like the program, because it’s a convenient medical service project, she said, but it also is an opportunity to talk with families about their fears, including the possibility of a link between autism and other developmental issues.
The benefit of vaccination is also the “herd immunity” it gives those who are too young or too sick to be vaccinated, she said. Without that immunity, disease can spread rapidly through the community, she said.
Earlier this year, for instance, eight Orange County residents were among nearly two dozen people statewide who contracted the measles from someone who had caught it on a trip to India. Officials said most of the people affected were unvaccinated. Whooping cough outbreaks – also preventable with vaccination – are reported every year, Gush said.
“The bottom line is vaccinations save lives. We’re lucky in this country that we don’t have the issues that our neighbor countries do,” Gush said.