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From heartbreak to hope: Argentina’s progress in maternal immunization

April 25, 2016 by Dr. Romina Libster

Sleeping infant wearing a black and white outfit and wrapped in a pink blanket.

An infant in Argentina sleeps peacefully. Photo: PATH/Doune Porter.

A pediatrician shares why the loss of a little girl named Sol set her on a path to safeguard mothers and their infants.

The most moving case I have ever encountered as a pediatrician came early in my career. The patient was a baby girl called Sol. With a name aptly meaning “sun” in Spanish, her memory has stayed with me, shining a light on why bridging the immunization gap is so important for infant survival.

Sol was not yet two months old when she arrived at the hospital where I worked in Buenos Aires, Argentina. She was very ill with pertussis (whooping cough)—a serious respiratory infection that can cause severe coughing fits and difficulty breathing. There was little we could do for her and she worsened very quickly. Even oxygen treatment (a lifesaving intervention for many respiratory infections) was not enough for one so young and sick. On the third day, she died.

Back then, I didn’t want to accept that any baby should die from a vaccine-preventable illness like pertussis. Today, I’m proud to say I don’t have to because of vaccine initiatives in Argentina that are giving newborns and young infants new hope, particularly a maternal immunization strategy that was launched in 2012.

Bridging the infant immunization gap by vaccinating mom

Pregnant woman standing in an examination room.

Maternal immunization has gained momentum in recent years, demonstrating success in fighting maternal and newborn tetanus, pertussis, and influenza in a number of countries around the world, including Argentina. Photo: PATH/Mike Wang.

Direct vaccination is often not an effective option for infants like Sol, who are in their first couple months of life. Their immune systems are too immature to build the antibodies needed to fight germs encountered shortly after birth. Maternal immunization can help by bridging this early gap in protection until direct vaccination can be effective.

For a young baby like Sol to have been protected, her mother would have had to be vaccinated during pregnancy. This would have boosted mom’s immunity and enabled antibodies to be transferred through the placenta to Sol for protection in early life.

This approach has gained momentum in recent years, demonstrating success in fighting maternal and newborn tetanus, pertussis, and influenza in a number of countries around the world, including Argentina.

“ Maternal immunization has gained momentum in recent years, demonstrating success in fighting maternal and newborn tetanus, pertussis, and influenza in a number of countries around the world, including Argentina. ”

The secret to Argentina’s success in maternal immunization

Much like tango or football, vaccines are a big part of Argentina’s culture—which has contributed to the broad acceptance of maternal immunization in the country. Our public health system makes vaccines mandatory and free for everyone and coordinates across immunization and prenatal care arenas to ensure vaccines reach the pregnant women who need them. Those of us who are health practitioners work alongside media and other communicators to educate the public about maternal vaccines that can help mothers give lifesaving protection to their babies. These factors contribute to a successful cultural model that views vaccination as both an individual health benefit and a community responsibility to help others.

Of course, the journey isn’t over. Work is still needed to improve vaccine coverage in remote parts of the country. We are still studying the impact of Argentina’s maternal immunization program. And, we need to be ready for additional maternal vaccines coming down the development pipeline that could help against other important infections for infants, like respiratory syncytial virus.

As Argentina’s maternal immunization story evolves, however, Sol’s memory still lights my way as a vaccine researcher and advocate. Knowing her story would have been different if she had been born in Argentina today, I’m reminded how heartbreak can turn to hope.

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