She had one leg shorter than the other. Not in such a glaringly obvious way that one would immediately notice, but you could tell if you studied her walk or she pointed it out to you, like she did to me when I was little.
I couldn’t fully understand the story as a child, but my mother had contracted Polio when she was around three years old, and almost died. I remember that part because she had two names. Mildred was the name she was given at birth, and Goldie was the name she was re-named after she had recovered, as is customary in the case of near death experiences in the Jewish religion.
By the time I was born, the Polio vaccine had been developed and was administered widely to children in the United States. Polio was nearly eradicated in this country by then, and so the story of my mother’s near death from Polio became to me a long-ago folk tale from her childhood.
Sadly, that has not been the case for the rest of the world. Sure the numbers have dropped 99.9% since 1988 when there were 350,000 known cases around the world, to the 37 reported cases in 2016. Still, the fact is, that as long as Polio remains in even one child, children the world over are at risk of contracting the disease. The victims of the highly infectious Poliomyelitis virus that attacks the nervous system are usually children younger than five years old.
I was thrilled to be asked to speak at this years United Nations Foundation Shot@Life Summit to a room of almost 200 champions from all over the country. I’ll confess that having never spoken to a group that large I was a nervous wreck, but I love a challenge, and it helps to speak from the heart on an issue you are emotionally invested in, and so this is what I said:
“Every story begins and ends with a woman, a mother, a grandmother, a girl, a child, . Every story is a birth”….- Ishmael Beah Author of Long Way Gone & Radiance of Tomorrow & UNICEF Advocate
As a storyteller, and a mother to my four children that quote by Ishmael Beah really touches me. Because before I was a mother, I was of course a daughter. And the story of why I am here speaking to you today begins with her. my mother was born in 1922 , she was 45 when I was born, and a polio survivor. She stood all of 5’2” at a tilt, since Polio had left her with one leg slightly shorter than the other.
Eventually I would come to tower over her at 5’9″, and now that I am a mother myself I muse at how odd it must have been to have ended up with a daughter so much taller. While I was still a daughter, and before I became a mother, I was a traveler. I still think about the mothers who approached me as a westerner in my early twenties and held out their babies to me asking for medicine or a cure. If those babies survived they would be in their mid-twenties now, and surely not all did survive. Knowing what I know now I wish I could go back in time with a bag of medical supplies and give them whatever they needed, because the pleading looks in those mother’s eyes haunt me to this day.
I never was a mother and a daughter at the same time. My mother passed away four months before my own first child was born. Though she had told me stories about having Polio as a child it never really resonated with me in the way it did once I became a mother myself. How terrified my grandmother must have been of losing her. And to be honest I hadn’t really reflected on those mothers I met as backpacker in my 20’s until I became a mother myself, and then I remembered that helpless feeling I was left with when I did not know what to do to help them. I was so grateful to join shot@life as a champion and finally have the opportunity to DO SOMETHING. To honor my mother’s legacy as a Polio Survivor, and to help the mothers that I know are out there in developing countries desperate for proper healthcare, for lifesaving vaccines for their children that every mother should have access to.
As excited as I was to join Shot@Life I have to confess that had I known that I was going to be visiting my government representatives on capitol hill that first year I attended the summit, I may never have joined. I would have been too afraid. Yet, the next thing I knew I was hoofing it around capitol hill (in the wrong shoes…I might add…( definitely take the comfortable shoe recommendation seriously ) advocating for Shot@life with my congressmen and Senators. I brought the messaging back to my community and realized how much work is still to be done just in terms of awareness alone. There is so much misinformation and lack of awareness out there on vaccines. In this country we take it for granted that our babies will not die from a simple case of diarrhea, but mothers in countries where they lack access to vaccines have lost, or know someone who has lost a baby to a vaccine preventable disease. Every 20 seconds a baby dies from a vaccine preventable disease, mothers will walk for days to get vaccines when they can for their children. I realized there is a huge need to get the message out to the public.
So what can YOU do to make sure every child gets a fair Shot@life no matter where they are born?
Become a United Nations Foundation Shot@Life Champion, as a Champion here are a few ways to reach out to make an impact in your community that can ripple around the globe:
Hold a party to get the word out, if you don’t want to do it in your home there are so many companies that offer fun alternatives. In my community stores like Alex & Ani, Pinkberry, and Flatbread Pizza will help you have a party on site to fundraise for your event.
Hold an event at your child’s school or set up a booth during an international fair, take the opportunity to work the importance of vaccines into the broader issue of global awareness.
Use social media as a messaging tool for good with this social toolkit.Write op-eds, letters to the editor, blog posts, or articles for your local paper or magazine. I had a profile run in my local town Magazine for example.
For World Pneumonia Day last November I was paired up with Dr Mkope from Tanzania and at the National Press Club in Washington, DC we did over 20 radio and TV interviews! It was a great feeling knowing that the message of the importance of vaccines, with real life proof of efficacy from Dr. Mkope, was being broadcast so far and wide. At shot@life we say “a virus is just a plane ride away”, and in a perfect example of this ever shrinking world, it turned out that Dr. Mkope is the pediatrician of the one friend I know in Tanzania.
This year might be the last year that Polio is a threat to any child in the world, with only 9 cases on record, and still known to exist in only two countries in the world, the World Health Organization predicts that, with vaccines, it will be eradicated soon.
Every story is a birth, for my mother who survived Polio, for the mothers I met in central Africa with the pleading eyes, for my children and my children’s children, what I have learned as a Shot@Life Champion is that we have the opportunity to shape this narrative on global health, together lets write this story to end with no child dying unnecessarily from a vaccine preventable disease.
As the needle plunged into my arm I squeezed my eyes shut, not that it hurt, but I was not expecting to have to get a Polio shot that day. To travel to South Africa from the USA you do not need a Visa, and very few vaccines are suggested. This makes it one of the easiest African countries for us Americans to travel to. So I was surprised when the Polio vaccine was one of the highly suggested ones as I prepared for an Insight Trip to Johannesburg with Global Team of 200 and its founder Jennifer James.
As a United Nations Foundation Shot@Life Champion I shouldn’t have been surprised, one thing I have learned is that as long as Polio exists anywhere in the world it is still a threat to all of us. Although it hasn’t been found in South Africa since 1989, we know from the recent cases of the disease popping up in countries like Somalia and Kenya, that the virus is only one boarder crossing or plane ride away.
If you ask anyone old enough to remember back when it existed In the US, they grow wide-eyed at the topic. They all remember the terror that gripped communities before the Polio vaccine arrived in 1962.
My own mother had been the victim of a Polio outbreak as a young child. She was lucky enough to survive, but with one leg shorter than the other that served as a reminder to the ordeal. I can only imagine how frightened my grandmother must have been that her first-born might succumb to the disease.
Today Polio has been eradicated in 99% of the world; only the countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria still have the problem of indigenous wild polio virus transmissions. Rotary International established World polio Day in honor of Jonas Salk, who developed the vaccine against poliomyelitis. The Polio vaccine has led the fight in eradicating the disease, but if polio exists anywhere, it is a threat everywhere. As a global community we are in the final push to eradicate Polio once and for all.
It is important that action is taken now before we lose this opportunity. The gaps in funding have forced those implementing the vaccine to scale back their polio vaccination efforts creating vulnerable populations worldwide. If we do not stop this disease now, it is estimated an additional 200,000 children a year will become paralyzed.
Today, October 24 is World Polio Day; a day to commemorate the progress we’ve made and how much further we have to go. In honor of World Polio Day, a resolution has been introduced in the U.S. Senate to commemorate this important day, and we need your help to get it passed. Contact your Senator and tell them to support S. Res. 270.
Won’t it be great when no one needs to get the Polio vaccine anymore?
The Millennium Development Goals are 8 international development goals set after the United NationsMillennium Summit in 2000. These goals were agreed upon by all 193 United Nations members to be achieved by 2015. At the time it must have seemed very far off in the future, but today marks 1,000 days until the goals are to be met. Millennium 1,000 has filled a schedule of 1,000 minutes of digital programing today to mark the goal and inspire momentum in achieving the 8 Millennium Development goals globally. You can join the conversation, or learn more by following the hashtag #MDGMomentum. I will be taking part in 1/2 hour Twitter chats withWorld Moms Blog at 6pm on the topic of #MDG2 Education using @worldmomsblog and #MDGMomentum, again at 9:30pm with Social Good Moms (where I am a member of Global team of 200) on #MDG5 “Picturing Maternal Health: A Look at Maternal Health Through Facts and Photos.” using #SocialGoodMoms & #MDDGMomentum hashtags, and then again at Midnight with World Moms Blog on #MDG4 Child Survival using @worldmomsblog & the #MDGMomentum hashtag. I hope to see you at one or more! Below are fantastic infographics on each of the Millennium Development Goals from the United Nations. Much progress has been made, already extreme poverty has been halved since 1990, but we have so much farther to go by 2015, we need to work together to achieve these goals.