Alarm spring 2021 | Vol. 22 No. 1 – Vaccines Work: Stopping the Unfold of Lethal Ailments – World
Alert is a quarterly magazine from Doctors Without Borders / Doctors Without Borders (MSF-USA) that contains compelling stories and photographs from our work around the world. Below is an excerpt from MSF USA Chairman Africa Stewart’s introduction to Spring 2021 (Volume 22, No. 1), Vaccine Work: Preventing the Spread of Deadly Diseases.
A letter from Dr. Africa Stewart
As a child, I never had a pediatrician. My health care consisted of a patchwork of free clinics and emergency rooms. The mobile clinics that traveled through the poor neighborhoods in and around Pittsburgh often ended up with our local fire department. The place where our parents held social gatherings on Friday evenings was remodeled on Saturday morning to cater to those in need. Our community leaders organized checkups for children, scoliosis screenings, exercise physics, vaccinations, and everything in between.
My parents lived through the polio era in the city, when the first injectable polio vaccine was developed in the 1950s. Families who witnessed the polio epidemic firsthand were grateful and relieved to receive this new vaccine. The work of Dr. Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh is now part of the annals of history and intertwined with modern virology. My hometown drafted some of the most important public health and science plans.
Today we should remember the good doctor’s answer when a journalist asked who the polio vaccine belongs to. “The people,” replied Dr. Salk. “There is no patent. Could you patent the sun? “
When I was growing up, many parents deliberately exposed their young children to chickenpox in order to have some control over the timing and severity of what was considered inevitable illness. Now the varicella vaccine is part of the routine vaccination schedule in the United States.
As a clinician, I began my internship in 2000 when the debates turned around using the traditional Papanicolau test – better known as the Pap smear – to screen for cervical cancer. At the time, this was the only method, but there was increasing evidence of the role of human papillomavirus (HPV) in precancerous changes in the cervix. As young doctors, we were aware of the need to incorporate the new HPV tests into our clinical practices to reflect a more modern and patient-centered care model. Now we know that cervical cancer is preventable with the HPV vaccine, which is part of the standard vaccination schedule for a child in the United States. However, in many of the places where MSF works, HPV vaccinations remain inaccessible and cervical cancer still kills too many.
As the world today focuses on the availability and usefulness of COVID-19 vaccines, I remember those wee hours of the morning in a fire station in Pittsburgh. The fear, the insecurity and the myriad of practical logistics still occupy me a lot as MSF tries around the world to reach poor and vulnerable communities to ensure medical care. My experience with free clinics here in the US is important evidence of my commitment to underserved populations in other countries and to the 45,000 people who work hard on all of our medical projects.
I reflect on the incredible impact vaccines have had on my life and marvel at the breadth of the work MSF is doing to expand access to these life-saving tools. We are currently working hard to ensure fair and equitable access to COVID-19 vaccines wherever they are needed, including supporting vaccination efforts in Puerto Rico and New York City. At the same time, we ran vaccination campaigns to respond to other outbreaks overshadowed by the pandemic. We also try to maintain routine vaccinations in exceptional circumstances.
I hope this edition of Alert helps you understand more about how vaccines work and how MSF works. As we prepare for the 50th anniversary of our founding in December 1971, we look back to reflect on the lessons learned and foresee to anticipate future challenges. We’d love to hear from you. If you have a question or story idea you’d like to see covered, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for your support as we continue this important work.
With best regards,
Dr. Africa Stewart