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Vaccinators Are the Real Heroes

April 20, 2012

The history of drops, shots and jabs is punctuated by many heroes.

Edward Jenner injected cowpox into James Phipps, his unsuspecting gardener’s eight-year-old son, pioneering the first vaccine in 1796. A century and a half later, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin created vaccines that have brought us to the brink of ending polio. Bill Foege led the victory against smallpox, the only disease–so far–ever wiped off the face of the earth. Maurice Hilleman developed nine vaccines against deadly childhood diseases, including measles. And Jim Grant at UNICEF rallied countries to deliver those vaccines to their kids, boosting the global coverage rate from less than 20% in 1980 to more than 70%.

But when it comes to immunization, there are plenty more heroes that deserve equal billing.

Every day, on every continent—on bikes, boats, or donkeys, and often by foot—vaccinators devote long hours to making sure that children receive the live-saving vaccines they need.

India never would have made it polio-free for a whole year if not for a million heroes who still crisscross the country, tracking down every child, as many times as it takes.


I’ll never forget witnessing the dexterity of a health worker maneuvering through a humid Delhi train station during a campaign, slipping polio drops into the mouth of a toddler as her mother barely slowed down.

My personal favorite, though, is the success of the meningitis A vaccine. For 10 years, an international group of partners collaborated on a new vaccine against this brutal disease that often causes deafness and can kill in hours. Developed for Africa, it’s affordable at about 50 cents.  I had the privilege of attending the launch of this vaccine in Burkina Faso in December 2010. Traditional dancers performed and it felt like a party, despite the stifling heat and the multiple speeches. Hundreds of chattering schoolchildren gathered in the main square in Ouagadougou to be immunized. I snapped photos of giggling girls to show my own girls back home, deeply aware that I had never worried about access to vital vaccines because they were born in Germany, a developed economy. Then the vaccinators fanned out in a blitz across the country, immunizing 11 million people in 12 days. The result? Only four cases of meningitis were recorded in the 2011 season, compared to 25,000 in 2008. 

At the Gates Foundation, we want to name and celebrate these unsung heroes. To commemorate the first truly global World Immunization Week, we are launching a series to spotlight our partners on the front line. Whenever we travel, we will bring back stories and photos of the vaccinators we meet. We hope you will join us by sharing your own story, or the stories of the heroes you find.

We all know that vaccines work to save and improve lives. Thankfully, vaccinators work even harder. What heroes do you know in the vaccines world? Let us know via Twitter under the hashtag #vaccineswork or join us next Thursday, from 9 am-12 pm Eastern Time during Shot@Life's Twitter Party.

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