How Stories Changed My Life

This post originally appeared on the Texas Children’s Blog on April 20, 2015 in honor of the National Infant Immunization Week. It has been reposted here with permission from the author. 
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By 

National Infant Immunization Week (NIIW) is a week dedicated to highlighting the importance of infant immunizations. In honor of NIIW, I thought I’d share why infant immunizations are important to me as a parent and as a public health professional.

While it’s obvious that I am passionate about immunizations, most people don’t know that I had a unique experience a few years ago that stirred my passion and shaped my beliefs about immunization. It all started when I wrote a book.

The book is titled “Vaccine-Preventable Disease: The Forgotten Story” and is a collection of stories and photos of individual and families affected by a vaccine-preventable disease.

While writing this book, I met many individuals and families and learned how vaccine-preventable diseases changed their lives.

The first family I met was the Throgmortons, a family who lost their 6 week-old baby to pertussis. A few months later I met the Lastinger and Palmer families, both of whom lost their young daughters to the flu. Emily Lastinger was just 3 years old and Breanne Palmer was just 15 months old when they died. Over the next few years I continued to meet families whose lives were devastated by vaccine-preventable diseases. The Metcalfs nearly lost their daughter, Julieanna, to Hib meningitis. Jenny Wise lost her brother, Andrew, to hepatitis B. Abby Wold and Jamie Schanbaum lost their legs, several fingers, and barely came out alive after contracting meningococcal meningitis. A few years ago I met the Williams who lost their son, Nicolas, to meningococcal meningitis. I’ve also gotten to know the Cary family over the last several years. Billy Cary was 13 when he contracted influenza and nearly died. He spent almost 2 months in the hospital and even today, at age 18, he has lingering effects from his illness. Most recently, I met Micah Kramer and Mayra Camaano who nearly lost their 9-year-old daughter, Chloe, to influenza. There are many more families included in the book that I haven’t mentioned and many more stories yet untold. To read stories from “Vaccine-Preventable Disease: The Forgotten Story” please visit here. To watch a video and learn more about Billy Cary and Chloe Kramer’s story, please visit here.

All of these individuals and families were brave enough to allow me to sit in their living room and listen while they shared some of their most intimate memories. As hard I tried to maintain a professional composure during these interviews, I never left with a dry eye.  Instead, I left feeling as though I had shared in their loss.

So why am I passionate about the importance of infant immunizations? Simply put, meeting these families and hearing their stories irrevocably changed my life. Listening to these families’ experiences and living vicariously through them allowed me to fully understand the importance of vaccines. The memory of these experiences has never left me and undoubtedly, it has shaped me as a mother.

Pictured below are my two daughters. They are 2 and 4 years old. Like all parents, I want to protect them whenever I can. So I strap them securely in their car seats every day. I IMG_5472make sure they wear helmets whenever they ride their bikes. I lather them with sunscreen and bug spray when we’re outside. And of course, I immunize them – on time, every time. Like any parent, it is difficult for me to watch either of them endure pain, even if it is the relatively quick and minor pain of a needle in the arm or leg. But whenever I take my children for their shots, I remind myself of these stories and know that this one moment of pain will prevent much more serious pain, sorrow and loss like these families experienced. It quickly mitigates any anxiety, stress or fear. Whenever the slightest doubt about vaccines creeps in or you start to feel anxiety about vaccinating your baby, rest assured that vaccines are safe, effective and the best tool we have to prevent our children from devastating infectious diseases.

In the end, we are fortunate if we don’t have to learn this lesson the hard way.


Be sure also to check out the great videos also produced by Texas Children’s: Facing Influenza and Facing Meningitis

What do we learn when #SVUGoesViral? Quite a lot.

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By Robyn Correll Carlyle, MPH

Full disclosure: I am not typically an SVU fan. But when I heard that the NBC drama was tackling measles, well, the vaccinerd in me just couldn’t resist.

So last Wednesday night I tuned in to watch, and I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised.

The plot started in standard SVU form. A group of prep school students partake in some scandalous activities, which results in inappropriate photos of underage teens being posted online. When detectives go to interview the kids, however, some of them are out sick with (you guessed it) measles.

While the detectives are attempting to trace the “viral” photos, they get wrapped up in investigating a parallel measles outbreak that spreads to dozens of people – including Sergeant Olivia Benson’s (Mariska Hargitay) immune-compromised foster son, who had only just received the MMR vaccine and didn’t have time to develop sufficient protection.

But how is that possible? These kids had to have been vaccinated?  asked Sgt. Benson incredulous.

It turns out, they hadn’t been vaccinated, despite medical records saying they had.

I won’t spoil it for you (if you missed the episode, you can watch it here on NBC’s website), but let’s just say a vaccine opponent nicknamed “Typhoid Trudy” has her day in court.

In the public health community, we grow to expect science portrayed in popular media to be sacrificed for the sake of plot. Statistics are exaggerated. Disease symptoms hyperbolized. But SVU touched on a wide range of topics throughout the course of the episode – signs and symptoms of measles, possible complications, the true risks and benefits of vaccination, who we vaccinate and when, etc. All of which was presented using scientifically accurate information. Because as it turns out, measles is dramatic enough. There’s no need to embellish.

There were a few mic drop moments – like when “Trudy,” whose son has been identified as the source of the measles outbreak, insists that as a mother, vaccination should be an individual decision. She exclaims passionately, “My child. My right. My decision.” The prosecutor then responds, “But you didn’t just make a decision for yourself, did you? You made a decision that endangered everyone else. What gives you the right to take away their choice?”

But what really impressed me were the more subtle moments. Like when Sgt. Benson finds out her son was exposed to measles, she makes a point of asking her colleague whether his kids were up-to-date. That little gesture, that simple act of just checking in with the people around her to make sure they are protected, is something that we don’t always see – in Hollywood or in real life. Yes, vaccination is something you do as an individual. But it’s an action that can protect not just yourself but your entire community.

When the measles outbreak made headlines in January, did you check in with your friends and family to make sure they were protected? Take a lesson from Sgt. Benson. It doesn’t have to be a big conversation. But it can make all the difference.

Click here for ideas on how you can talk about vaccines in every day conversations. 


Robyn is a project manager for educational programming at The Immunization Partnership

WHO: 10 Facts on Polio Eradication

In honor of the polio vaccine’s 60th anniversary this weekend, we wanted to share the World Health Organization’s 10 Facts on Polio Eradication. Thanks to the power of vaccination, we can #endpolio!

polio_11. Polio continues to paralyse children

While polio is a distant memory in most of the world, the disease still exists in some places and mainly affects children under 5. One in 200 infections leads to irreversible paralysis (usually in the legs). Among those paralysed, 5% to 10% die when their breathing muscles become immobilized.

polio_22. We are 99% of the way to eradicating polio globally

In 1988, when the Global Polio Eradication Initiative was formed, polio paralysed more than 350 000 people a year. Since that time, polio case numbers have decreased by more than 99% (with only 416 polio cases reported in 2013).

polio_33. There are just 3 countries which have never stopped transmission of polio

The 3 countries are Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. They face a range of challenges such as insecurity, weak health systems and poor sanitation. Polio can spread from these ‘endemic’ countries to infect children in other countries with less-than-adequate vaccination.

polio_44. Unlike most diseases, polio can be completely eradicated

There are 3 strains of wild poliovirus, none of which can survive for long periods outside of the human body. If the virus cannot find an unvaccinated person to infect, it will die out. Type 2 wild poliovirus was eradicated in 1999 and case numbers of type 3 wild poliovirus are down to the lowest-ever levels.

polio_55. Cheap and effective vaccines are available to prevent polio

There are 2 forms of vaccine available to ward off polio – oral polio vaccine (OPV) and inactivated polio vaccine (IPV). Because OPV is an oral vaccine, it can be administered by anyone, even volunteers. One dose of OPV can cost as little as 11 US cents.

polio_66. The global effort to eradicate polio is the largest public-private partnership for public health

In fact, it is the largest-ever internationally-coordinated public health effort in history. It is spearheaded by national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and UNICEF, and is supported by key partners including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Underpinning the effort is a global network of more than 20 million volunteers worldwide who have collectively immunized nearly 3 billion children over the past 20 years.

polio_77. Large-scale vaccination rounds help rapidly boost immunity

The Global Polio Eradication Initiative assists countries in carrying out surveillance for polio and large-scale vaccination rounds. When India was still polio-endemic, there were 640 000 vaccination booths, 2.3 million vaccinators, 200 million doses of vaccine, 6.3 million ice packs, 191 million homes visited and 172 million children immunized: all this in just one round of the national immunization days.

polio_88. Every child must be vaccinated to eradicate polio

This includes those living in the most remote and underserved places on the planet. To get each vaccine safely to children everywhere, all manner of transport is used – from donkeys to motorbikes to helicopters – to reach those living in remote areas, in conflict zones or difficult terrain.

polio_99. Polio-funded staff, strategies and resources are also used to advance other health initiatives

Strategies to find and map every child can be applied to other public health initiatives. While a vaccination team is in a remote village, they can, for little additional cost, provide other health interventions while they are there. For example, vitamin A has been given alongside polio campaigns. Since vitamin A gives a general boost to immunity, it allows children to fend off a range of infections, this has averted more than 1.5 million deaths.

polio-1010. We can eradicate polio

In 2011, this little girl, Rukhsar Khatoon, was the last child to be paralysed by polio in India. The WHO South East Asia Region was declared polio-free in 2014, marking a significant leap forward in global eradication, with 80% of the world’s population now living in certified polio-free regions. The world can be freed of the threat of polio – with everyone’s commitment, from parent to government worker and political leader to the international community.

5 Ways you can support science-based immunization policy

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Every legislative session, there’s a flurry of activity. Hearings are held. Debates are had. And decisions set in motion changes that can have a profound impact on our communities, our families and even our own health. When it comes to immunization policy, it’s critical that those decisions be based on sound science and research.

Most Americans agree. The majority of us support vaccination requirements and understand the very real consequences of letting vaccination rates slip. Even still, policies regarding vaccination are rarely passed without heated discussions or commotion.

But amid the headlines and talking heads, there’s a voice missing in the conversation: yours.

We know you’re busy. You have a job, a family, a social life, hobbies – myriad competing priorities. But supporting science-based legislation doesn’t have to be hard or take up a ton of time. Here are 5 ways you can help support science-based immunization policy in your state:

  1. Be informed. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what pending legislation will or won’t do. Be sure you understand what legislation is being proposed and what it will mean for you and your loved ones. If you aren’t sure where to start, try contacting your local immunization coalition. They will likely have their finger on what immunization-related legislation is being proposed and how it will impact the prevention of vaccine-preventable diseases in your state.
  2. Tweet at your legislators, or post on their Facebook page. It might not be as personal as a phone call or a letter, but communicating with your legislators on social media has the added benefit of being, well, social. Other people might see your messages and chime in. It’s a small action that can help gather more support for what you’re trying to accomplish and engage those who might otherwise have stayed on the sidelines.
  3. Write an e-mail or mail a letter to your legislators letting them know where you stand on certain immunization-related bills. If you live in Texas, you can find out who represents you by going to The Immunization Partnership’s website (there’s even a ready-made e-mail you can send in support of science-based legislation), or for those outside of Texas (but inside the U.S.), you can find out who represents you by going here. In your e-mail, be sure to share your story about how the proposed legislation will impact you and your community. You don’t have to write a lot – a few paragraphs are enough – but sending them a note is a good way to let your voice be counted.
  4. Make a phone call. The simple act of picking up the phone can go a long way. Often all it takes is 2-3 minutes to let your legislators and/or their staff know why it’s important for them to support science-based legislation when it comes to vaccination policy.
  5. Schedule a visit. It might not always be possible to visit with your legislators in person, but if you can, it can really make an impact. As former British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said, “History is made by those who show up.” A face-to-face conversation with legislators demonstrates that you cared enough to take time out of your busy schedule to talk about these issues, and that carries a lot of weight.

If you support science-based immunization policy, please don’t stand on the side lines. Your voice matters.  Make it heard.

Have anything to add to the list above? Let us know in the comments below!