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Vaccine advocate and first-time mom: when work and life converge

April 10, 2019 by Erin Fry Sosne

Levi-side-by-side.jpg  --- DO NOT USE -- Erin Fry Sosne and her son Levi. Photo: courtesy of the author.

Author Erin Fry Sosne's son in 2015 receiving the rotavirus oral vaccine (l) and pictured today with his mom (r). Photos courtesy of the author.

How taking my own child to be vaccinated gave me fresh perspective on PATH's work.

Editor's note: Why is measles back? In 2000, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) declared that America had eradicated measles. Nearly twenty years later, measles outbreaks are popping up around the country, as they have several times since 2000. In mid-March, the CDC confirmed 268 cases of measles in 15 states, and the U.S. Congress is holding hearings to discuss the problem. Scientists, global health policy organizations, and tech companies are speaking in one voice about the dangers of misinformation and resulting vaccine hesitance among some parents.

PATH first ran a version of this reflection piece four years ago on our DefeatDD website, but unfortunately, the article remains just as relevant today as it was then. Author Erin Fry Sosne is the Deputy Director of PATH’s advocacy department and has worked with U.S. policymakers, United Nations agencies, technical experts, and civil society groups to promote access to vaccines around the world, including strategies for overcoming the challenge of hesitancy from concerned parents.

Staying positive as a vaccine advocate

With the measles outbreak dominating the US vaccine-related news (and jeopardizing a trip my two-month old baby and I planned to take to visit family in southern California), I wanted to share some positive news.

Last week, I joined mothers (and fathers) around the world and took my baby boy to receive his first series of childhood immunizations including the vaccine against rotavirus. As someone whose global health career is focused on increasing vaccination rates around the world, and who has seen first hand the remarkable leaps in population health that come when a vaccine is first made available at a country level, vaccinating my own child was a particularly powerful and thought-provoking experience for me. I came away with a number of emotions and thoughts running through my head:

Admiration: for the parents who walk miles, wait hours and take time away from work to protect their babies through the power of vaccination; for the science that made it possible to prevent these diseases; and for the complex systems that bring the vaccines safely from their point of manufacture to their place of delivery (a much more complex challenge than one might realize).

Frustration: that the voice of scientists on the topic of vaccine safety is sometimes overshadowed by passionate individuals with strongly held beliefs based upon anecdotal evidence and conspiracy theories. Vaccines are one of the most studied health interventions of all time. These little miracles in a vial take decades to develop and test for safety and efficacy, and require hundreds of thousands of people around the world working together to ensure the same products reach babies in Albequerque and Ouagadougou. The decision not to vaccinate an otherwise healthy child should not be taken lightly; it puts the health of the entire community at risk.

Pride: to work among scientists and public health professionals, including those at PATH, who help to develop and deliver these lifesaving interventions. To advocate in partnership with political leaders in capitals around the globe who have committed to immunization as one of the best buys in health, dedicating budget for national and local vaccination programs and through financial contributions to organizations such as Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, UNICEF, and WHO who help make vaccines more affordable and accessible in countries who can’t afford them.

I am grateful that my son joined the millions of children who will be vaccinated this year. I am glad that the unfortunate news of the vaccine refusers has stimulated discussion about the value of vaccines among American families, and hope that we can all learn from this tragic outbreak the importance of immunizing ourselves and continuing to make existing and to-be-developed vaccines available to families around the world. While it was hard to watch the jabs go into my son's tiny little thighs, when I swaddled him in my arms, I knew the brief moments of discomfort were worth the shield of protection provided to his little body and the greater community around us.