Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Heroes from the Field: Q&A with Dr. Asm Amjad Hossain

April 24, 2012

As Bill Gates wrote in his post, "A Hero in the Battle Against Polio," about Dr. Asm Amjad Hossain, "Most people have heard of Louis Pasteur, Jonas Salk, and Albert Sabin, whose innovative research years ago led to the creation of the first vaccines to protect against rabies, cholera, and polio. Discovering a new vaccine is a remarkable achievement, but getting those vaccines into some of the toughest places on earth is also an extraordinary accomplishment."

This is why the 2012 Gates Vaccine Innovation Award recognizes the work of Dr. Hossain, a former district immunization and surveillance medical officer in Bangladesh. Bangladesh has made tremendous strides in improving child health. Childhood deaths have been reduced by 65 percent since 1990, an amazing achievement. National immunization of children is a high priority there, and the number of one-year-old children immunized is consistently high, often higher than industrialized nations.

We asked Dr. Hossain a few questions to get more insight into his background, why he does this important work, and his plans for the future.

Why did you decide to put your professional energy towards vaccines for children?

During my internship training, after my graduation in medicine, I found there were many diseases which cannot be cured. For some diseases there are treatments, but they can be very costly and sometimes cannot deliver desirable relief to patients. For example, I found many young patients suffering from liver cirrhosis or cancer due to hepatitis B virus infections during their childhood. I realized that it is far better to prevent diseases rather than let them attack people. This feeling directed me to work in preventive medicine rather than in a curative field.

 
We need to ensure that all children have access to the vaccines they need.

Through this work, I can reach the poor people in villages, who need care the most. Little interventions, like vaccines, can definitely achieve very good results for them.

Why are vaccines important?

In 1988 there were about 350,000 polio cases around the world. But now cases have been reduced to several hundred.  This achievement is a testament to the huge impact vaccination campaigns at the global scale can have. 

Vaccination efforts to protect against smallpox and polio are the largest health efforts in history, which led to the eradication of smallpox in 1980, and the almost total elimination of polio today. So, we can simply say that vaccines can bring miraculous change to society around the globe.  We can continue to bring about these improvements in health with minimum resources and effort.

Although the achievements toward polio eradication are remarkable, the achievements to date will be threatened if we don’t eradicate it totally. Other vaccines continue to protect children from life-threatening diseases every day. We need to ensure that all children have access to the vaccines they need.

Can you tell us a brief story about one particular family or child that you remember working with at that time?

I believe people will eagerly take vaccines if they understand the advantages of immunizations.

Six years ago, I was working in Tangail district in Bangladesh. One day I went to supervise a local immunization site. When I was reviewing the register, I found one female child who was born six months ago but had not been vaccinated at all. I asked the vaccinator why this child was not vaccinated. The vaccinator replied that he had tried to motivate the family by working with the local leader but the family still refused to vaccinate the child.

I went to the house and I found the mother making thread out of cotton with a spinning wheel. After we exchanged greetings, I asked her about her job and other things about their lives. When we became a bit more acquainted, I asked her why they did not vaccinate their daughter. She said that they had been expecting a male child this time, but her daughter was the fourth female child for the family.

The parents were angry with their fate, and that’s why they didn’t want to vaccinate the child.

I shared with her that I have only one daughter and I am so proud of her. It shouldn’t matter whether a child is female or male. The main thing is that the child should be in good health, educated, and hope they become a good person.

I told her that if they do not vaccinate their daughter and by chance she became infected by polio, she could be crippled for life. In that case, she would likely become a great burden on the family. We said our goodbyes and I returned to the immunization site. Just 30 minutes later, the mother arrived have the baby girl vaccinated. It was an amazing situation.

I believe that if we approach this work with the right intentions and take the time to listen to their reasons for resisting, they will appreciate how important vaccines are and will make the right decisions for their families.

What was it like for you to win the Gates Vaccine Innovation Award?

I have worked in the field of immunization for about nine years. I always tried to find ways to improve the quality and quantity of our services. It was a very wonderful feeling when I received the news that I had been selected as the winner of first Gates Vaccine Innovation Award. I am thankful to the Gates Foundation for selecting me as the winner of the award. Certainly this recognition goes to all of those who worked closely with me, from district health administrators to the field workers, to representatives from partners like the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and others.

It is a great honor for my country also. In spite of many issues, Bangladesh is trying to do something to promote the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) field, and has made great progress in increasing immunization rates nationally.

Thanks to Mr. Bill Gates, Ms. Melinda Gates, and all in the Gates foundation for implementing an award for vaccine innovation. I believe there are many innovators across the world whose contributions made a lot of positive changes. This award will inspire them to contribute more. This award will recognize those innovators and will also facilitate to replicate their innovations to other parts of the world for better performance.

What is your hope for the future, for children around the world?

As a human being, I think we all have a responsibility to serve the children.  We do not want to see any children in the world dying or becoming crippled by a disease which we can prevent easily. I hope our approaches to vaccination will be replicated in different part of the world. If we register all pregnant mothers, give them simple ante-natal care, assist with safe delivery, give post natal care, immunize the child, and also give family planning service in a coordinated way, maternal, neonatal, and infant mortality rates will reduce drastically. And I hope the days are not far away where every mother and child from every corner of the world will get the proper, basic health care services they deserve.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is now accepting nominations for the second annual Gates Vaccine Innovation Award. The award aims to recognize, celebrate, and spur transformative ideas for achieving health impact through the delivery of vaccines. Vaccines are cost-effective, safe, and proven to protect children from life-threatening and crippling diseases. Thanks to the tireless efforts of governments, health care workers and non-governmental organizations, great progress is being made toward achieving equal access to vaccines.  

We invite you to nominate individuals or groups of individuals who have achieved significant improvements in the prevention, control, or elimination of vaccine preventable diseases through immunization. Nominations are being accepted online until August 31, 2012. More information is available at: http://www.gatesfoundation.org/gates-vaccine-innovation-award

 
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