Shot@Life Immunization

Photos taken by a Shot@Life staffer visiting Haiti to witness UNICEF's work immunizing children.

Every 20 seconds around the world, a child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease. One in 5 children globally does not have access to the vaccines they need to survive.

“Immunization is one of the most successful and cost-effective ways to help kids grow into adults,” says former Ambassador John Lange, who now serves as the primary focal point for the United Nations Foundation’s global health diplomacy activities and is the co-chair of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative’s Polio Partners Group.

The desire for children to reach their milestones like first steps, first words and first day of school and make it to adulthood motivates Devi R. Thomas, director of Shot@Life, a campaign of the United Nations Foundation that aims to ensure that children around the world have access to life-saving vaccines.

“My dream for Shot@Life is that every mother out there is able to dream of her child’s future,” she explains.

Shot@Life

Those dreams are possible for more parents as the result of increased access to vaccines around the world. In 1980, before widespread vaccination, measles caused 2.6 million deaths worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Accelerated immunization efforts have dramatically reduced measles deaths, with the measles vaccine preventing approximately 17.1 million deaths from 2000-2014, a decline of 79 percent.

Despite the progress, there is still much work to be done. Each year, 1.5 million children die from vaccine-preventable diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea and measles.

In 2014, there were 114,900 deaths from measles globally, which remains one of the leading causes of death among young children around the world. Measles, which is highly contagious, still causes approximately 314 deaths every day, or 13 deaths every hour.

The Disneyland measles outbreak illustrated the highly contagious nature of measles as well as the need for global immunizations and the impact those global efforts can have here at home.

“These diseases are not just abroad; they do affect the United States,” says Lange, who noted that although the country was declared free of measles in 2000, measles impacted people in 27 states in 2014, and then spread in the deadly 2015 Disneyland outbreak.

The CDC says, “The outbreak likely started from a traveler who became infected overseas with measles, then visited the amusement park while infectious … Analysis by CDC scientists showed that the measles virus type in this outbreak (B3) was identical to the virus type that caused the large measles outbreak in the Philippines in 2014.”

“Diseases don’t need a passport,” says Thomas, who also points out that understandably people don’t worry as much about diseases that have been eradicated in the United States. “In this global world it could come to our community, and that’s scary. It’s another reason why protecting kids in another part of the world matters here, too.”

The risk of measles and other highly contagious yet vaccine-preventable diseases is of particular concern for infants too young to be vaccinated as well as people who have compromised immune systems, including people who have undergone organ transplants and many cancer patients treated with chemotherapy. Without a fully functioning immune system, such diseases can be fatal.

“When your child has a brain tumor and requires treatment, her immune system will be knocked out and you become aware that our melting pot of a city is rife with every nature of germs. You do anything to minimize their exposure,” says Sarah Zematis of Chicago, mother to a two-year-daughter who received chemotherapy to treat a brain tumor. She says that the fear of her daughter contracting a vaccine-preventable disease “was a huge worry.”

“We went through an enormous amount of hand sanitizer, but it won’t stop measles and mumps,” Zematis says.

“If people in developing countries don’t have education or access to vaccines, they don’t have the option to protect themselves. So many times here in the U.S., the conversations about vaccines are so heated but, when you look at the core issue of protecting each other, that’s where the importance lies.”

Thomas says there are simple actions people can take to ensure all parents around the globe have access to vaccinations for their children. She encourages people to talk about the issue, both the disturbing statistics as well as the fact that the contribution of just one dollar can vaccinate a child.

In addition, Thomas urges people to contact their elected federal representatives and tell them you think it is important that the United States support global vaccine programs.

“Foreign aid from the federal government’s budget is less than one percent of the total budget. Within that, global health and vaccine funding is a small piece of the pie, but that contribution makes a huge difference,” says Thomas. “It can save millions and millions of lives.”

Thomas notes that there has been an increase in federal government funding over the past four years, but more money is needed to save lives. To fully fund Gavi, the global vaccine alliance, this year would take $275 million of federal dollars and that would help immunize 8.7 million children.

The investment can have benefits beyond one specific disease. “All of these different programs build on each other,” says Lange. “In our measles work, we rely on infrastructure that the polio program has funded.”

In addition, establishing the framework needed to deliver vaccinations within developing countries can be invaluable in combatting other diseases, including those we may not yet know about. Lange described how officials were able to quickly stop the spread of Ebola in Nigeria using assets and networks that had already been established by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

“We want to protect children, whether they are our children or they live thousands of miles away and we’ve never met. These children are no different from the children in our own lives and they lack the access to basic health services that our children have. It comes down to a question of access,” Thomas says.

She explains, “When I talk to a mother in Chicago about a question of access and talk to a mom in Mozambique about access, I get completely different answers. Some women are walking 25 miles that day to get a vaccine, as opposed to American parents who get a call from their doctor … Improving access to vaccines globally is an opportunity to relate to another parent who wants to protect her child.”

Increased access to vaccines benefits not only today’s parents and children, but future generations as well. Lange has worked tirelessly on polio eradication, and he says that they are close to the goal, with polio remaining in only two countries, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The existence of polio anywhere, however, is a threat everywhere. That is why the ultimate goal is always eradication.

“There is something very exciting about the conception of eradication because eradication is forever,” explains Lange. “It’s not just the matter of reducing cases, but eradication is the lasting benefit to humanity for generations and generations to come.”

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