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Story by Wycliffe Muga
If someone asked me which incident has had the most profound impact on me during my sabbatical year in America, I would mention a poster for an elementary school in Boston. I saw it one morning at a train station – at the time, in 2006/7, I was studying alongside leading scientists at MIT and Harvard.
The poster invited parents to apply for admission of their children to school and listed the required documents parents were to submit. Included in the list were “the child’s updated immunisation records”.
This simple requirement was a revelation to me: this was definitive evidence of the comprehensive system that existed in America in order to monitor child immunisation programmes – the key to keep kids protected from preventable, devastating diseases.
Despite having a son in school back in Kenya, nobody had ever asked me for his immunisation records (even though he does have them) and I had never heard of such a requirement for any Kenyan child (and I have many nieces and nephews).
The fact is that, as I stared at that poster, I realised that since all parents want their kids to get an education, it is at this point of entry into the school system that an immunisation requirement should be imposed.
Such a requirement is a simple and elegant solution to get all kids immunised. And yet we have nothing like it in Kenya – or indeed in most African countries – despite efforts by governments and support from donors for strengthening immunisation.
To me as a Kenyan – and as an African – this poster represented a deeply tragic failure of public health policy on the part of our leaders – a failure in need of urgent correction.
In my view, the greatest tragedy in Africa is not civil wars, corruption, famines or tyranny. Rather it is the fact that millions of children die every year of easily preventable and easily curable diseases.
So during my time at MIT and Harvard, while my European, Asian and American classmates were attending seminars on cutting-edge subjects like ‘dark matter’, nanotechnology, and ‘string theory’, I was busy trying to find out what African governments can do to reduce infant mortality rates and tackle other major health challenges.
I attended many seminars on public health and also had one-on-one meetings with distinguished researchers working in this field in both of these iconic academic institutions.
In the end, I was most impressed by the work being done by Professor Kimberly Thompson who had founded and directed the “Kids Risk Project” at the Harvard School of Public Health.
Meeting her and learning from her about the enormous and yet often unrecognized health and financial benefits of vaccines, inspired me to focus even more on the ways in which the media can influence public health policy.
She is currently the President of Kid Risk, Inc., a non-profit organisation, and Professor of Preventive Medicine and Global Health at the College of Medicine of the University of Central Florida – and, she is my science hero.
Wycliffe Muga @mugawycliff, is a multi awarded editor as well as columnist based in Nairobi, Kenya, and currently reporting for The Star and BBC World Service