In 2002, I was in Maracaibo, Venezuela assisting with the investigation of the last measles outbreak in South America when the news arrived: Ministers of health from the region agreed that a synchronized week of vaccination in the hemisphere would help prevent future outbreaks and increase access to immunization for many who would miss this opportunity. The idea of Vaccination Week in the Americas ignited 12 years ago and is now a global initiative: World Immunization Week! Since 2003, more than 465 million people in the Americas have been vaccinated under the framework that emerged from the original idea of Vaccination Week in the Americas (VWA), which takes place the last week in April every year.
VWA is truly a collaborative effort led by countries and territories of the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) to improve equity and access to vaccination for families. VWA activities strengthen the national immunization programs in the Americas by reaching out to families with little access to routine immunization programs. The focus is to find people living in urban peripheries, rural and border areas and in indigenous or other hard-to-reach communities and offer them vaccines.
The work has saved lives.
The Region of the Americas encompasses the entire Western Hemisphere (from Canada in the very north all the way down to the southern tip of South America, and all the countries in between), was certified polio-free in 1994. It interrupted the spread of indigenous measles in 2002 and rubella in 2009. However, globally these viruses are still circulating. A huge global sporting event – the World Cup— takes place in Brazil this summer, attracting millions of travelers from around the world. That adds a new element of risk, increasing the risk of importation of vaccine-preventable diseases into the Americas. In light of the World Cup, VWA will highlight the importance of vaccination to protect the health of the people of the Americas, using slogans like “Vaccination: Your best shot,” and “Go on offense: Get vaccinated!”
The region launches VWA with an event on the border of two countries where leaders, community members, and partners inaugurate the week with the ceremonial vaccinating of a child by the president or other dignitary. This is then followed by rousing speeches of commitment and support, ethnic dances, and sometimes even a marching band.
In addition to the multiple launching events that will be held across the region to celebrate the 2014 initiative, the Regional launching ceremony will take place in Montevideo, Uruguay on April 26th. CDC participated in several VWA launches and will be present for VWA activities this year from 26 April – 3 May in, Honduras and Uruguay.
For me, being a part of the launch of VWA (this year’s and in previous years) is an honor not only as a CDC employee but also because the United States is a member state of the region of the Americas, so in a way I am wearing two hats, one as a representative of CDC and another as a citizen of USA.
The parties and celebration of VWA are great but the real satisfaction is the feeling you get when you know that someone will be vaccinated as a result of VWA. Equitable access to vaccination means the promise of a healthier, happy life for millions of people.