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Every mother deserves the choice to immunize her child

Kath Horton is an Account Director at BBH, New York.

I recently attended an event hosted by the U.S. Fund for UNICEF focused on a very important mission—to immunize every child.

As an expectant mother, with my first child due in May, the conversation resonated with me especially and I wanted to share some learnings.

Dr. Nicole Bates and Dr. Jos Vandelaer speak at “Immunizing Every Child: Mission Impossible?”—a discussion with leading experts on the efforts to vaccinate every child within the next decade.

We were hosted in the JP Morgan building in Manhattan. It was a picture perfect morning and we were a million miles away from the atrocities we learned about from an eloquent and focused panel made up of: Dr. Nicole K. Bates, Senior Program Officer at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr. Stephen L. Cochi, Senior Advisor to the Director at the CDC Center for Global Health, Dr. Jos Vandelaer, Chief of Immunization for UNICEF and expertly hosted by Dr. Richard Besser, Chief Health and Medical Editor at ABC News.

During the two hours that we sat in the room, approximately 340 children died from diseases such as polio, measles, pneumonia, and diarrhea, yet some vaccinations cost just 25 cents ($1 including operational costs). How can that be?

While a child in the U.S. may survive a case of measles or diarrhea, children in developing countries may not be so fortunate. Regular immunizations can also prevent other diseases that come later in life such as cancer.

The administering of vaccines is an extremely complex operation as the delivery has to be customized to allow for a multitude of geographical, conflict or legislative complexities in every region. UNICEF is the world’s largest buyer of vaccines, distributing more than 3 billion doses annually and reaching 56%  of the world’s children, but it’s not enough. UNICEF in partnership with the WHO, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the Centers for Disease Control and others aims to make full immunization a part of every child’s life.

And they have achieved some success… two-thirds of all cases of polio used to be in India. The incredible news is that in the last year alone, through a persistent vaccination regime, there have been zero new outbreaks. The Gates Foundation has statistics that clearly demonstrate that cases of disease are down when funding is up, but also that the converse is true.

Nicole told of a phenomenal story of opposing groups putting their differences aside in order to have their children vaccinated. It really brought home how the universal mother’s instinct cuts through everything; every mother wants the best for her children, be they rebels or otherwise.

The acknowledgement of this universal instinct becomes even more poignant when you hear that every year there are 19.3 million un-immunized children around the world whose mothers do not have the choice to immunize. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment from U.S. Fund for UNICEF President and CEO, Caryl M. Stern, that ‘Children are not defined by borders, they are defined by their age.’ Any mother should have the choice to immunize her child whether she lives in Manhattan or the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There was a lot of head-nodding when Stephen stated that the choice of having your child vaccinated has to become a ‘social norm’ for diseases to be eradicated. Well it certainly is here in the U.S. which leads me to my next point…

Are we living in a bubble in the Western world?

As the contentious conversation around whether I will immunize my child begins, I have to question whether we take for granted the privilege we have in this country. Measles has been eradicated in the Western world for more than 10 years, the thought of our children dying from diarrhea or polio is incomprehensible, and debate still lingers over whether it’s right or wrong to immunize. I urge you to join the movement to immunize every child, to support the work of UNICEF and of others, and to share these facts to drive the conversation and make this mission possible.

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