Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Vaccine Hero: Dr. K.O. Antwi-Agyei

December 07, 2012

Vaccine heroes come in all forms–they can be community health workers, scientists, government or spiritual leaders, moms, dads, or volunteers. A vaccine hero can be anyone, anywhere, who is helping kids get the vaccines they need.  

At the time I was born in 1953, there was no modern vaccination in Ghana. My village had no clinic and the nearest hospital was about eight miles away on a very bad road, which was cut off during rains. Some of the major diseases were malaria, measles, whooping cough, yaws, pneumonia, diarrhea, and tuberculosis.

My father was a clerk at the Local Council whilst my mother was a farmer. My younger sister was hospitalized after suffering from measles and for about two weeks my mother was with her in the hospital. My sister nearly died as she developed complications of pneumonia and malnutrition. Later, my younger brother contracted pneumonia. My mother took him to a village, but unfortunately he died. It was sad indeed as my mother returned to where we were living without her boy. 

As a young man, I was inspired to go into the medical field by observing a member of my church. He was a medical officer in a local hospital and there were times he was called whilst we were at church to attend to patients and I thought his work was important. I prayed that one day I would be like him and help save lives and pursue a career in medicine.

During my early days as doctor, the hospital staff thought I was a good surgeon, but I kept losing children to measles complicated by pneumonia and malnutrition. So, I decided to focus on preventing diseases and specialized in public health in Ghana.

 Immunization is cost-effective and a sure way to reduce the rate of under five deaths. It is worth investing in immunization.

Nine years ago, I led the immunization teams to eliminate measles deaths in Ghana. And six months ago, we introduced vaccines to prevent pneumonia and rotavirus.

But with so much progress, we still face a combined challenge of training and vaccine delivery.

With new vaccines, new systems and processes must be created to share knowledge and practices with health staff. Monitoring and supportive supervision to boost the morale of the staff is essential and should be improved.

With  vaccines that require refrigeration, some staff in geographical hard-to-reach areas need to commute over long distances, keeping the medicine cold in coolers, to offer vaccination services. Financial restraints prevent us from purchasing equipment like solar fridges, motor bikes, and boats for such areas.

It is important to remember that we still need to focus on investing in immunization. Once we manage to control one disease, we can focus on others to save more lives and improve the health of children everywhere.

Today, the village where I grew up has a health centre and no child has died from measles for the past nine years. I am very happy and inspired by our success stories. It reminds me that change is possible and we can solve these problems.

Do you know a vaccine hero? Share your thoughts via Twitter using the hashtag #vaccineswork, Facebook or in the comments below.

To learn more about the importance of vaccinating kids worldwide, visit our partners, Shot@Life and the GAVI Alliance.

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