Family Matters

In Global Push for Vaccination, Moms Give Kids a Shot@Life

To promote the need for immunizations, public health groups turn to mothers.

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John Moss / Photo Researchers / Getty Images

Moms get things done. They can unload the dishwasher, pack the kids’ lunches, throw in a load of laundry and answer a barrage of emails — all before anyone else in the household awakes.

Which is why the United Nations Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign brought 118 mothers — and two dads — to Washington, D.C. this week. Launched in 2012, Shot@Life promotes global vaccination as a way to decrease child mortality in the developing world. Such campaigns have been critical in eradicating polio, for example. But children are still dying from chicken pox and measles — diseases that are preventable with proper immunization. “This issue really resonates with American mothers,” says Devi Thomas, director of Shot@Life. “We are talking about the universality of motherhood.”

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Known as “champions,” the Shot@Life mothers arrived on Capitol Hill with a mission to give children in developing countries the same shot at life that their own youngsters have had. They visited the offices of 100 senators and representatives, spreading their message that vaccines are among the most cost-effective ways to save the lives of children around the world. “Every 20 seconds a child dies from a vaccine-preventable disease,” says Dr. Tanya Arora, a pediatrician at UCLA who participated in the training. “When I speak about this to mothers or health care workers, everyone is appalled by these statistics.”

Women who attended the training are also encouraged to blog about what they learn and to fund raise within their communities to improve global access to vaccines. For more than a year, Shot@Life staffers have been traversing the country, attending mom-blogger conventions, going to PTA meetings and partnering with Mocha Moms, a support group for African American mothers. Last year, they trained 300 “ambassadors” in 43 states who held 131 events. Salt Lake City moms hosted a Shot@Chocolate party where women sipped tasty shots of liqueur and filled out donation cards. In San Francisco, a mother throwing a birthday party for her daughter decided to request cash for immunization instead of gifts. “It’s crazy that kids are not being able to enjoy childhood and live a nice, happy life,” says Holly Pavlika, a Manhattan mom who participated in last year’s training.

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For Pavlika, the training has been both educational and exhilarating. She now tweets almost daily about the importance of global vaccines; she has heard Bill Gates speak about the issue, and she helped organize a party for mom bloggers and their children to celebrate the launch of the Shot@Life iPhone app. “When you see how social media and technology give you a platform as a woman to talk about things that are important to you, it’s really empowering,” says Pavlika, who heads MOMentumNation, a marketing company and social media community. “Once you become a mother, there is a special connection with mothers everywhere.”

That connection becomes even more powerful when U.S. women learn that in some parts of the world, mothers may walk up to 50 miles to get their children vaccinated. In this country, of course, it’s as easy as making a doctor’s appointment and piling the kids into the minivan. “A mom who can use vaccines to protect her child can really relate to a mom who can’t,” says Arora. “Moms here would do anything to protect their child from getting ill. Wouldn’t any mom want to do the same?”

In recent years, increasing attention has been focused on the sliver of U.S. parents who choose not to immunize their children. Despite evidence debunking associations between vaccines and autism, some parents continue to question immunizations; others think that a baby’s immune system isn’t strong enough to handle being vaccinated. But research has found that even vaccine-hesitant parents in the U.S. believe in vaccination in developing countries. Thomas thinks that’s because they know that diseases such as polio, which U.S. moms and dads haven’t experienced, still exist overseas. “When you don’t see these things, it’s hard to scare someone,” says Thomas. “But when mothers in this country hear about children dying of these diseases, they understand that they need these vaccines.

Ultimately, says Thomas, it’s about raising awareness. “At the end of the day, we are talking about mothers who are in a situation where they have to watch their children die,” she says. “No mother should have to be in that situation. That’s why it’s important for us to bridge the gap as women to talk about how this affects us all.”

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