By Dr. Purvi Parikh
The sub-Saharan heat beats down on us as we walk from our air-conditioned bus to the Simonga Clinic outside of Livingstone, Zambia. It is hard to imagine that some women walk as far as 18 kilometers with their children in this heat just to get them a necessary and life-saving vaccine. Sometimes they face other obstacles, such as monsoons and of course animals such as elephants, zebras, and rhinos. This puts rush hour commuting in perspective for my travel companions and me. I have been selected for what feels like a trip of a lifetime to travel to Zambia with the United Nations Foundation’s vaccine initiative shot@life. As an immunologist in New York City, I give vaccines daily, and often fight with passionate vaccination skeptics about their benefits. But what awaits me at Simonga Clinic is unlike anything I have seen before. My companions–all women–are impressive. They are mothers, journalists, entrepreneurs, bloggers, and shot@life representatives. They are passionate about vaccines and about advocating their benefits. It makes me proud to be among them and makes me understand why many famous leaders emphasized empowerment of women to elevate a society.
When we arrive at the Simonga Clinic, we meet Namaka, the nurse who runs it with the help of a few paid employees and mostly volunteers. The catchment area of this clinic encompasses 5,077 people in four zones within a district of over 169,000–who are, by the way, served by just one ambulance. There are three rooms in this clinic and one serves as a labor and delivery room where women will give birth at times by the light of the cell phone during power outages, and without anesthesia. They routinely treat diarrhea, upper respiratory diseases, malaria, and of course administer vaccines. Their biggest problem is something called load shedding where power will go out for extended periods per day so many of these fridges need to be run by solar power to keep the vaccines from expiring. Transport for both patients and nurses can be an issue.
Yet, even with these scarce resources these simple clinics manage 98% vaccination rates. Why is that? One answer is that the mothers who walk hours to get their children the vaccines are extremely motivated. They have seen measles wipe out the children of entire villages. They have seen the ravages of pneumonia, flu, and other preventable diseases. To them, inoculation is a gift. Even for brand new vaccines, skepticism is very low. Just this past year, Zambia had the measles/rubella campaign which was a new vaccine for them. Again, close to 98% percent vaccination rates. Word gets out by radio, tv, public service announcements, government officials go door to door. Text message is another way patients are reached in remote villages that often do not even have regular electricity or power. God bless Martin Cooper, inventor of cell phone technology, which can transcend socioeconomic classes, cultures, phone lines, power lines, and geography, and keep the world connected.
Today we had the opportunity to sit with some of these women who have brought their children for vaccinations or other ailments. We meet Mercy, a 21-year old mother and and her son Kelvin who is three. They walked three hours to the clinic. We asked why she vaccinated Kelvin and she replied, so that he can be strong enough to grow up and attend school. She feels the vaccines will protect him so he can study and achieve his goals in life. It strikes me that things we take for granted such as going to school, studying, playing with our classmates, all of which are in jeopardy for these kids without their vaccines. Mercy, who has had no formal education, can’t understand why many parents would forgo these benefits and risk reviving diseases that were considered eradicated.
We interview others in the clinic. Again, all women. My travel companions and I remark on how strong women are globally and committed to betterment of their children and communities. They are not so different than us.
Shot@life is an initiative of the UN foundation works with organizations in countries such as UNICEF and GAVI(Global Vaccine Alliance) to aid in vaccine delivery on the ground. GAVI works with the government to supply vaccines to the country while UNICEF is involved with delivery on the ground. You can learn more about their life-saving work and donate if you wish to do so at firstname.lastname@example.org. Even locally, for every vaccine you receive at Walgreens pharmacy, a vaccine will be donated by the company to shot@life. Vaccines are one of the few life-saving and preventative measures that not only protect you but also your loved ones. If any of your loved ones suffer from asthma, allergies, diabetes, heart disease, cancers or other chronic conditions they are more at risk of dying from diseases such as flu that are preventable by vaccination. Be like these women and empower your families and friends!
Dr. Purvi Parikh is an adult and pediatric allergist and immunologist. She is a clinical instructor of medicine and pediatrics at NYU-Langone Medical Center and practices at Allergy and Asthma Associates of Murray Hill. She completed her fellowship training in allergy and immunology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine’s Montefiore medical center following her residency at the Cleveland Clinic and is board certified by the American Board Allergy and Immunology, as well as the American Board of Internal Medicine.
Dr. Parikh has published articles on allergy, asthma and immunodeficiency syndromes in the Annals of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, The Journal of Gastrointestinal Cancer and is currently writing a chapter for an otorhinolaryngology textbook. Dr. Parikh has also presented research at various national and international meetings.
She is passionate about health policy and sits on the health and public policy committee for the American College of Physicians. She also sits on the advocacy council for the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology.
She is also national spokesperson for the Allergy and Asthma Network, which is the leading nonprofit to end needless suffering from allergies and asthma.
She is president elect of the New York Allergy and Asthma Society.