Tuesday, September 20, 2011

New campaign aims to reach Americans to give unvaccinated kids a Shot@Life

NEW YORK — Did you know that in developing countries a child dies every 20 seconds from diseases that are entirely preventable with vaccines? Did you know that the number of children dying every year from these preventable diseases is nearly equivalent to half the children entering kindergarten in the U.S.?

Those are a few of the points driven home yesterday at the official launch of Shot@Life, a new United Nations Foundation campaign directed at the U.S. public and Congress, at a luncheon here on the first day of the U.N. High-Level Meeting on Non-Communicable Diseases.  

 Some of these facts were new to me even though I have been working in global health for almost 20 years, and not all of it was bad. For example, I learned that 80% of the world’s children are vaccinated. That was wonderful to hear.

But the flip side is that, in 2011, one in five children does not have access to the immunizations they need, and that translates into 1.7 million children dying from diseases that have all but disappeared in the U.S. The UNICEF representative at the launch called this “The Last Quintile,” and it will undoubtedly be the toughest quintile.

One thing that is different about this vaccine campaign is that it goes beyond the usual message of “saving a life,” important as that is. It contrasts the normal steps of an American child who is vaccinated (“first smile, first tooth, first step, first word, first day of school”) with the plight of a child not vaccinated (“signs of illness, disease diagnosis, symptoms worsen, misses school, another life cut short”). It is about saving a life, but it is also about improving the quality of a life.

Seth Berkley, the new CEO of the GAVI Alliance, said that GAVI is rolling out a lot of new vaccines right now and has received 74 applications from 50 countries. He believes that vaccines could be a bipartisan issue at a time when bipartisanship is in short supply.

Which is why two former senators will be supporting Shot@Life — Robert Bennett, Republican of Utah, and Chris Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut.

The main diseases targeted by Shot@Life include measles, mumps, rubella and polio, which is poised to become the second disease ever eradicated. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation developed a wonderfully creative video narrated by Bill Gates that explains the problem, and the particular challenge of polio.  

Another fact I learned is that polio was only eradicated in the U.S. in 1979 but children here still have to be vaccinated against it to prevent its re-emergence. The same will be true once it is eradicated in the last four countries where it still exists — Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan.

Shot@Life’s new website explains how the campaign will work:

Shot@Life educates, connects and empowers Americans to champion vaccines as one of the most cost-effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries. A national call to action for this global cause, the campaign rallies the American public, members of Congress, and civil society partners around the fact that together, we can save a child’s life every 20 seconds by expanding access to vaccines. By encouraging Americans to learn about, advocate for, and donate vaccines, the United Nations Foundation's Shot@Life campaign will decrease vaccine-preventable childhood deaths and give children a shot at a healthy life.

Shot@Life is supported by the Gates Foundation, UNICEF, GAVI Alliance, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Red Cross and ABC News.

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