Washington, D.C., April 21, 2010 (PAHO) — Forty-four countries and territories of the Western Hemisphere will reach out to an estimated 42 million children and adults with vaccines during the Pan American Health Organization's 8th Annual Vaccination Week in the Americas (VWA) on April 24 to May 1.

Girl at a Vaccination Week in the Americas eventTens of thousands of health workers and volunteers in North, Central, and South America and the Caribbean are pledged to support the effort, which will coincide with similar initiatives in two other regions: the 5th Annual European Immunization Week and the first-ever Eastern Mediterranean Vaccination Week.

"Vaccination Week in the Americas has, for the past seven years, been an example of the best of Pan Americanism," said PAHO Director Dr. Mirta Roses. "We are pleased and proud that it has inspired other regions to follow our lead."

The countries of the Americas have been leaders in reducing vaccine-preventable diseases. The region was the first in the world to eradicate smallpox (in 1971) and to eliminate polio (in 1994). Today, measles has also been eliminated, and the last case of endemic rubella was reported in 2009. Diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis have also been substantially reduced in the region through immunization.

Despite these successes, many children in the Americas have not completed their vaccination schedules, and hard-to-reach populations continue to have lower rates of immunization.

With the slogan "Reaching Everyone," Vaccination Week in the Americas this year is placing priority on reaching groups that otherwise have limited access to health services and are at higher risk of contracting vaccine-preventable diseases. These include residents of urban fringe areas, indigenous communities, and people living in rural and border areas.  The initiative is also prioritizing municipalities throughout the region that have vaccination rates of under 80 percent.

The week will be kicked off with a series of special events featuring ministers of health and other dignitaries as well as celebrities. Media and social communication campaigns are being planned to publicize the initiative and raise awareness of the importance of vaccination.

The first of multiple regional launches of Vaccination Week in the Americas is scheduled to take place in Nicaragua on Saturday, April 24, with the participation of PAHO Director Mirta Roses, Nicaragua's minister of health, and dignitaries including the ambassadors of Spain, Japan, and the United States.

The U.S.-Mexico launch, a joint celebration of VWA and the United States' National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW), will take place on April 26 in Las Cruces, New Mexico, near the U.S.-Mexico border. It will be attended by PAHO Deputy Director Jon Andrus as well as state and local leaders and health officials.

On April 27, PAHO Director Dr. Roses will travel to St. Laurent du Maroni, French Guiana, for a tri-national border launching event uniting French Guiana, Suriname and Brazil. Suriname's minister of health and high-level health officials from all three countries are also expected to take part. This event is being coordinated with French authorities, making it the first bi-regional launch involving the Americas and Europe.

Dr. Roses will travel on May 1 to the border between the Dominican Republic and Haiti for launching events in Fond Parisien, Haiti, and Jimaní, the Dominican Republic. The ministers of health of both countries and of Spain are expected to participate. 

"Plaza Sésamo" characters "Elmo" and "Enrique" are scheduled to appear at VWA launching events in several major cities in Colombia.

Local events are also planned in other PAHO member countries with the participation of local and government officials.

Vaccination Week in the Americas was first launched in 2003 as an initiative of the ministers of health of the Andean Region, in response to a measles outbreak in Colombia and Venezuela. Today it has the support and participation of every PAHO member country in the Americas and has widened its goal of reaching the most vulnerable and hard-to-reach communities—indigenous groups, people living in border areas, and geographically isolated communities—to now include children under 5 years of age, elderly people, health workers, and residents of municipalities with low vaccination coverage.

Since its inception, VWA has reached over 288 million people with vaccines against measles, rubella, polio, hepatitis B, influenza, diphtheria, and tetanus. Many countries also use VWA for preventive interventions including vitamin A and folic acid supplementation, deworming medication, and health education, among others. This year a number of countries will be vaccinating against H1N1 influenza.

As a technical cooperation agency, PAHO supports its member countries in organizing and carrying out Vaccination Week in the Americas, including planning, resource mobilization, social communication campaigns, procurement of vaccines and supplies, and evaluation of activities. PAHO also coordinates inter-agency efforts, works to recruit new partners for the initiative, and sends its own experts to the region to support member countries' efforts.

Other VWA partners include the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the United National Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), the Spanish Agency for International Cooperation (AECI), multiple NGOs, governments, local authorities, among others.

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