Recently, the World Health Organization declared the Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of the Congo a global health emergency of international concern. It is the fifth time WHO has declared such an emergency and the second time for Ebola.
When the declaration was made, I was on a two-week trip to West Africa visiting the four countries impacted by the last large-scale Ebola epidemic. Among other events, I met Ebola survivors in Sierra Leone, while also visiting a hospital and burial site in Liberia and an Ebola museum in Guinea.
It was enlightening, sobering and inspiring. Then, I received news from my husband back home that my 97-year-old mother had just passed away.
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My mother lived a very long life, nearly doubling the time most West Africans can expect to live. Her long life is a credit to advancements in public health protection and medical care.
In 1952, at the peak of the polio epidemic in the United States, she fell ill with the disease at the age of 30. In 1952 alone, nearly 60,000 children in the United States were infected with the virus; thousands were paralyzed, and more than 3,000 died.
I grew up listening to my mother tell the stories of her hospitalization and the long road of physical therapy to regain strength in her right leg. She recounted iron lungs, used to treat polio patients, and the numerous children she saw in the hospital. She feared for me and my siblings.
My mother celebrated the development of the trivalent inactivated polio vaccine in 1955 and the oral poliovirus vaccine in the early 1960s. I remember her emotion as I lined up to get vaccinated. It left an indelible mark in my memory and later gave me a great appreciation for vaccine discovery and development.
As an international public health community, we have eradicated the scourge of smallpox thanks to Edward Jenner’s research and the development of the world’s first vaccine. We are nearing the eradication of polio thanks to the commitment and research of Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin. Most recently, the experimental Ebola vaccine has proven effective in controlling the outbreak in West Africa and is helping to contain the outbreak in the DRC.
The development of vaccines gave the public health community the tools needed to prevent these horrific diseases, but it took an army of dedicated and coordinated individuals and organizations across the globe to deliver the vaccine to the masses.
As the United States observes National Immunization Awareness Month during August, I am reminded of how far we have come in tackling vaccine-preventable diseases in this country. Vaccines have protected individuals and families from life-threatening diseases such as polio, whooping cough, HPV, measles, influenza and more.
As a public health leader and administrator, I also know that vaccine-preventable diseases remain a threat for many reasons, including a lack of access or refusal to get vaccinated. But we cannot let availability and misinformation stand in our way to doing what is right and needed.
This is why it is so important to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s vaccination guidelines. Immunizations are a strong tool in protecting public health — I have witnessed their benefits in action on the frontlines personally and professionally, and I will continue to be a champion and advocate for people of all ages to be vaccinated.
Judy Monroe, MD, is president and CEO of the CDC Foundation.
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