The message is simple vaccines save lives.
It was around 1955 in Bogota, Colombia, we were preparing for my brothers birthday celebration. Many children were planning to join the party when our babysitter started to complain of a bad case of “acne.” My mother was not convinced of the babysitters story so she sent her to our local pediatrician. Moments later, the pediatrician called with a frightening, almost unbelievable diagnosis: Smallpox!!!
I was only 7 years old at the time, and it was my first real experience with an infectious disease. I remember all the children standing in the long lines waiting to get vaccinated. Our arms were swollen, because of the vaccine. We suffered from high fevers for several days. There were many sleepless nights with my father at our side trying to console us. The images from the days following my brothers birthday still haunt me.
Years later, as a pediatrician in my native Dominican Republic I found myself treating several vaccine-preventable diseases like diphtheria and whooping cough. I recall the measles epidemic in the 80s that took the lives of so many children. Shortly after that there was the polio outbreak. I will never forget the panic of parents of children who begged the doctors to give them the vaccines, too! It was these experiences, starting in childhood and throughout my early career that helped shaped the way I practice medicine.
It has been over twenty years since I left the Dominican Republic, and in that time my home country has eradicated both polio and measles. And smallpox in the world is a thing of the past. But I still recall the 400 cases of probable bacterial meningitis each year and having performed multiple spinal taps every day in the 80 and the 90s. T
he isolation beds were full with children with bacterial meningitis. It was a scary time. In 2000, the government introduced the Pentavalent vaccine and incorporated it in the Expanded Immunization plan of the Dominican Republic.
In the Dominican Republic vaccines are and have always been given for free as is all other health care to mothers, children and adults in all Hospitals, health care centers and rural clinics throughout the country, citizen or not and independent of country of birth. As a middle income country every cent of health care pesos is shared with love by caring physicians at all health care centers.
My visit only a year after the introduction of the Pentavalent vaccine left me with joy as the isolation ward was essentially empty. The children who were once laying in those beds were now at home or in school or playing outside all thanks to vaccination.
Only a year ago the next life saving vaccine against Pneumococcal diseases was introduced, and already pediatricians are experiencing a decrease in the pneumonia cases that are so frequent in our children. With the decline in these, we will surely see a decrease in the deadly meningitis cases due to this bacteria.
Expanded immunization access has helped bring down the infant mortality rate significantly in the Dominican Republic. Not so in our neighboring Haiti, where obtaining acceptable medical care and the life saving vaccines its children need is very poor.
It is heartbreaking and not acceptable that in this century of so many medical and communication advances, the most impoverished country of the Hemisphere that is surrounded by other countries with so much wealth does not happen to receive the help needed. And the one measure that will improve their childrens lives is access to vaccines.
No life has a price. I have hope that one day we will eliminate Dengue fever, AIDS, and Malaria on the island of Hispaniola through improved access to healthcare, specifically vaccines.
As a pediatrician in Miami, I often reflect on the progress made in the Dominican Republic and globally. I am also reminded that diseases are just a plane ride away. Now we have the perfect example that we must involve ourselves in the eradication of vaccine preventable diseases around the world with the news that measles cases are on the rise in the US due to imported cases.
As we can see, an outbreak in a country once free of measles, polio, or some other vaccine-preventable disease is entirely possible. I have experienced firsthand the impact these diseases have on children, families, doctors, nurses and a country. Every child, regardless of where they were born, deserves a shot at growing up healthy, attending birthday parties, studying to be a pediatrician, a ballerina a firefighter, policeman or teacher or if they choose become a President every child deserves a shot at life!
Please get involved in Shot@life.org and be part of this worldwide campaign for healthy children through vaccines.
Angelica Floren, MD, FAAP, is an assistant professor of Clinical Pediatrics at the University of Miami. She is also a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and proud champion of the Shot@Life campaign, which seeks to raise awareness and funding for global immunizations.