At age 34, shortly after reaching the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, I decided that I had had enough excitement and was ready to start a family. Eight months ago, my little girl was born. Little did I know that she would be my greatest adventure.
Until she came into my life, I had always looked at vaccines objectively. I knew the facts: Vaccines save lives. As a leader of the United Nations Foundation (unfoundation.org), I championed vaccines as part of my everyday job, reminding people that nearly 2 million children die every year from diseases that could be prevented by a simple shot. I traveled all over the world with the World Health Organization (WHO; who.int), UNICEF (unicef.org), and other groups, and saw firsthand the importance of their polio-eradication efforts and measles-prevention campaigns. I often scoffed at mothers who were paranoid about vaccinating their children in the United States. Then it was my turn.
I don’t think I have been scared of anything in my life: mountain climbing, scuba diving with sharks, taking UN planes into conflict zones—none of these ever shook me. But driving a seven-pound baby home from the hospital was the most teeth-chattering experience of my life. (I complimented my husband for going 40 in a 60-mile-per-hour zone and for placing his hands at 10 and 2 on the steering wheel.) The days that followed my daughter’s arrival home were filled with tears, anxieties, and even outright panic. Is she eating right? Is she breathing? Is this bassinet safe?
When it was time for her to receive her shots, I found myself wondering if I was making the right choice. How is it that I can lead big initiatives for my job without a worry but every decision for my newborn was unbelievably scary? I trolled tons of websites—the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (aap.org), among others. And happily my research reinforced what I already knew to be true: Vaccines work. Immunization has saved the lives of more children than any other medical intervention in the last 50 years. Vaccines are safe, simple, and one of the most cost-effective ways to save and improve the lives of children worldwide. Knowing all of this, I scheduled my daughter’s vaccinations.
For us, getting a shot was easy: I took a 10-minute drive to the pediatrician’s office and forked over a $10 co-pay. It’s not nearly that simple in other places in the world. Nearly one in five children in developing countries does not receive the life-saving immunizations to protect them against diseases like measles, pneumonia, diarrhea, and polio. When I was in Mali, for example, I heard sad stories of mothers who had lost their children to measles and were frantically trying to protect their new babies in the hopes of never suffering such a loss again. These women have endured terrible tragedy and walk for days to reach a health post, where their children can receive a vaccine.
But change is possible. Measles deaths have decreased 85 percent in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to the global partnership of the Measles Initiative, a joint effort of the UN Foundation, the American Red Cross (redcross.org), the CDC, UNICEF, and WHO. In early 2012, India proudly announced that it had had no new polio cases during the previous year.
After her shots, my tiny girl got a fever for two days. As her protective mom, I hated to see her feeling discomfort. I also had a healthy set of guilt for putting her through this short-term pain. However, two tough days is well worth a lifetime of protection and the opportunity to grow up healthy and strong—a right that should belong to every child.
I gave my daughter a shot at life, and I hope you might give others the same. Join Real Simple and the Shot@Life Campaign, a new UN Foundation initiative aimed at getting Americans to champion vaccines in developing countries.
Learn more about how you can help the United Nation Foundation’s Shot@Life vaccine campaign, and about one woman’s quest to eradicate polio worldwide.