A shocking number of children die from contagious diseases yearly. The United Nations Foundation hopes to do something about that.

By Julia Edelstein
Updated April 25, 2012

Worldwide, nearly 2 million children die every year from lack of access to vaccines. “That’s about half the number of kids who enter kindergarten each year in the United States,” says Devi Thomas, the director of the Shot@Life Campaign, a new United Nations Foundation initiative aimed at getting Americans to champion vaccination across the globe. (Real Simple is the campaign’s official media partner.) “Imagine that many children—gone,” says Thomas. “And from preventable diseases.” Among the most prevalent of the ailments are measles, diarrhea, pneumonia, and, yes, polio.

This isn’t just a Third World problem. “In the last few years in America, there has been a bump in the most contagious diseases—whooping cough, measles, and mumps,” says Paul Offit, the chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and the director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Case in point: In 2010, California recorded 9,477 cases of whooping cough—more than the state had seen in any given year since 1947.

Why the surge? A growing number of parents aren’t immunizing their children or are delaying immunizations. “When we eliminated the disease, we also eliminated the memory of the disease,” says Offit. “There’s a very dangerous sentiment that these diseases aren’t so bad, that the shot is somehow worse than the illness.” Much of this misinformation stems from a widely reported 1998 study that suggested a link between vaccines and autism. Although the study was eventually found to be fraudulent and the doctor who conducted it lost his medical license, many parents have remained wary of vaccines, choosing not to immunize or to delay immunizing—a choice that harms American children as well as people across the world. “We export our fears,” says Offit.

Learn more: If you’ve ever worried about giving your child a vaccine, read why one new mother, a leader of the United Nations Foundation, decided to immunize her infant.

Take action: Tell your representatives in Washington that vaccines should be a priority for children in developing countries. Go to ShotAtLife.org and send a letter today.

To donate: A $20 tax-deductible gift to Shot@Life (ShotAtLife.org) immunizes one child in a developing country against polio, measles, diarrhea, and pneumonia.

To volunteer: Join members of Rotary International on an immunization trip to a developing country. Volunteers typically spend one day administering vaccines and two days working with local health-care providers. For information, e-mail Rotary at contact.center@rotary.org.

Read about one woman’s quest to eradicate polio worldwide.