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On Surviving Childhood

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"The mouth of my grave is open," is a proverb said by Somali women who learn they are pregnant, according to Rachel Pieh Jones in Sunday's New York Times.

Accepting that maternal or infant death -- or worse -- both -- are likely outcomes to pregnancy is certainly not unique to Somaliland. Across the developing world, women wake each day realizing that they might not survive child-birth or that their children might not survive their youth. It is a notion that doesn't even occur to the majority of us living in America.

And yet, as recently as during this month's Super Bowl, we learned of a measles outbreak because of anti-vaccination parents who refused to vaccinate their children. Janice D'Arcy of the Washington Post reported this news last week, just more fuel in the fire for those of us who balk at parents whose judgement flies in the face of common sense and whose decisions put at risk not just their own children but everyone else those children come in contact with. We are a country where 93 percent of our children are vaccinated and science points to the truth that these vaccines are safe and effective.

Meanwhile, in developing countries, according to the U.N. Foundation's campaign, Shot@Life, some mothers walk as far as 15 miles to reach life-saving vaccines for their children. Even more frightening, the number of children dying every year from preventable diseases in developing countries is nearly equivalent to half the children entering Kindergarten in the U.S. As the parent of a Kindergartener, I shudder to think.

The central theme of the U.N. Foundation's campaign is milestones; this basic idea that we all take for granted that children deserve to reach milestones. New mothers in the United States savor watching their newborns discover their toes, then crawl, walk, toss food and lose their first tooth. For millions of women in developing countries, the story is quite different and much of that has to do with the lack of access to childhood vaccines. Globally, one child dies every 20 seconds because of lack of access to vaccines. The Shot@Life campaign reminds us that universally, parents are all the same in our wish to watch our children pass milestones. It is outrageous to me that Somali women accept that their baby could die at anytime, yet educated American parents willingly put their own children's lives in danger based on Internet rumors.

Last month, members of the U.N. Foundation traveled to Honduras, where the vaccination rate for children is, remarkably, almost 99 percent. The U.N. team wanted to learn more about the country's success in protecting its children despite the odds. What they discovered is a unified grassroots effort starting with midwives who deliver babies encouraging parents to vaccinate their children to teachers and students spreading the word to police officers talking about the importance of vaccination, all working cohesively, to help bring this country's childhood vaccination rate on par with developed countries like Finland.

Ultimately, global childhood vaccination rates impact all of us, just as vaccination rates in the U.S. impacts all of us. The U.N. Foundation says "germs don't need a passport," and certainly the movie Contagion reinforced that reality. In today's global society, where we travel easily across borders throughout the year, the vaccination rates in other countries can suddenly become a domestic issue just as the spread of measles became a domestic issue a few weeks ago for those living in the state of Indiana. Countries frequented by U.S. travelers, like Switzerland and France, have also recently seen measles outbreaks.

Beyond the avoidable loss of life that can result from declining vaccination is the issue of expense. Seth Mnookin noted that an unvaccinated U.S. traveler got sick with measles during a trip to Switzerland in 2008 and was responsible for its spread to 12 other people. According to Pediatrics, that single infection ultimately resulted in an expenditure of $150,000, including containing the outbreak.

Many of us like to joke about our #firstworldproblems on Twitter and Facebook but part of the joke's cache is its ability to quickly put into perspective how mundane many of our daily challenges are in comparison to daily hurdles faced by others in developing countries. Here's another perspective to consider, for an amount equivalent to one week's worth of coffee, a child can be given a lifetime's worth of immunizations.

Every kid deserves a chance to reach their milestones; a Shot@Life.

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