As I sat beside Alvira, I was struck by how very normal everything seemed. I cooed over her adorable baby and played a little peek-a-boo. We discussed how quickly little ones grow and talked about parenting. It was a conversation I would have back home, but I was in the Buikwe District of Uganda, more than 7,000 miles from home. We were at a vaccination clinic, sitting on blue plastic chairs outside, not far from the shore of Lake Victoria.
There were dozens of moms and babies, too many to fit inside the tiny clinic building, so everything and everyone was outside.
I marveled at how a scale to weigh the babies hung from a tree. It worked perfectly. I watched in awe as the health care workers efficiently and kindly tended to both moms and babies, giving no sign that we were in a difficult to reach, rural area that lacked basic utilities.
I learned many things on that visit to the clinic. I learned that walls are optional, but vaccines are not, especially for mothers wanting to protect their babies from deadly diseases.
I quickly realized how lucky we are to very readily have access to vaccines. One reason for our trip was to observe the rollout of the rotavirus vaccine, made possible thanks to support from Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance. The vaccine had been available less than two months in this district. Mothers shared stories of their children who had been extremely sick from diarrhea caused by rotavirus. They beamed after their children were vaccinated, knowing they are protected from this life-threatening disease.
Having volunteered with Shot@Life for the past several years, I know it’s possible that we may eradicate polio in our lifetime. Polio remains in only three countries, but eradication requires vigilance from all of us. A focused effort to eliminate polio in these hard to reach communities is essential. Watching babies receive the oral polio vaccine, I was struck by how an action that takes just a second can provide a lifetime of protection.
Thanks to the vaccine, 19 million people are walking today who would have otherwise been paralyzed by polio.
Hopefully, in the not-so-distant future, the polio vaccine will not be necessary.
The healthcare workers taught me about the training that comes with introducing a new vaccine. They need to learn how and when to administer it, as well as information to share with parents, and record keeping instructions.
I was reminded that mothers, regardless of where they are from, all want to see their babies healthy. They want them to grow up strong. They want to see them reach adulthood. I couldn’t help but think of my daughter, who had just turned 16 the week prior. Milestones matter to moms.
Brian, our translator, was fantastic. He initiated our conversation and facilitated it at the start. When he moved to help another person in our group, I learned that moms could find ways to talk and connect. When Alvira described the long walk to the clinic, I realized that I had taken my easy access to healthcare for granted. When she showed me the booklet that she keeps documenting the baby’s vaccines, I learned that I take our record keeping for granted, too. (I also vowed to become more organized.)
Hearing all the Alvira had to do to get to the clinic and the sacrifices she had made for her baby’s health, I said, “You are a great mom.” Alvira smiled.
I was reminded how very hard we all try to do what’s right for our kids, even when it’s far from easy, and that recognition of that fact by other moms goes a long way.
Compliments and affirmations are welcome. So is support, which is why I volunteer with the UN Foundation’s Shot@Life campaign, as they work to provide mothers worldwide with access to lifesaving vaccines for their children. I know the letters I write, the calls I make, and the meetings I attend to support funding for global childhood vaccination programs, make a difference for moms like Alvira. Acknowledging and supporting other moms is a lot like vaccines—easy and beneficial.