Walking the Capitol Hill Walk for Life-Saving Vaccines

"There is no evidence to support a vaccine-autism link, and irrefutable evidence supports vaccination as one of the best ways to protect the health and lives of children all over the world."  

"In the context of global vaccine efforts, vaccine hesitancy makes no sense and rarely comes up." 

These two statements underscore why I speak out about the critical importance of vaccines. I've lived in a country and gone to school with people affected by polio. Trust me, no one who has the real-world experience of living in fear of vaccine-preventable diseases questions the necessity of vaccines.

So I wince, almost daily, at the harm done by vaccine denialists, in opening the gate for resurgences of preventable diseases like measles. And I wince again when I see anti-vaccine misinformation  spread by tiny but zealous factions within the autism communities, then blithely repeated by media outlets that value page views more than they do public health [shakes fist].

Anti-vaccine misinformation is a double whammy of dangerous ignorance: It makes people fear autistic people like my beloved son Leo, and it endangers the health and lives of children all over the world. So I counter that misinformation with my own double whammy: I speak out against anti-vaccine information and fight for good vaccine information whenever I can, as hard as I can.

Champions on Capitol Hill. Photo: Shot@Life
Which means I was thrilled to be invited to Washington DC by the United Nations Foundation's Shot@Life Campaign: as a UNF Global Issues Fellow to further the vaccine awareness work other bloggers and I did during Blogust, and as a Shot@Life Champion, trained on global vaccine awareness and issues and then unleashed on Capitol Hill with ninety-nine other Shot@Life champions to meet with our Senators and Congressional Representatives, in order to urge them to continue their support of life-saving global initiatives.

It was an life-changing experience, walking the halls of the Capitol Hill office buildings in the company of people who gave such incredible damns. Realizing, that, as a constituent, I have the same right any other constituent to have my say, directly to my members of Congress (or their staff). Which we did! We talked with staffers for both Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.

With James Hamos, Legislative Fellow, and
Megan Thompson, Legislative Assistant
Office of Senator Dianne Feinstein

And here is what we told the Senators' and Representatives' Congressional teams: Thank you for supporting global vaccine initiatives (because, thankfully, California and Silicon Valley were already on board). Let us know how we can support you -- and if you get blowback from your other constituents about diverting money internationally when we have so many domestic needs, we're here to provide you with information to address most any concern (and I also offered my services as a pro-vaccine autism parent). We need to keep funding international immunization programs for these reasons:
  • Humanitarian: A child dies every 20 seconds because they don't have access to life-saving vaccines, and 1 in 5 children lacks access to vaccines. Plus, immunizations save the lives of 2.5 million children, each year.
  • Public Safety: Measles infects 95% of the unvaccinated people who encounter a carrier; polio is only a plane ride away from returning to the United States. And babies can't be vaccinated in against measles in their first year of life. To keep ourselves safe, we must help eradicate vaccine-preventable disease in the rest of the world.
  • Cost-savings: The costs of eradicating smallpox are more than recouped by an annual savings of the one billion dollars that would have been needed for treatment, etc. And we're so close to eliminating polio! The current goal for a polio-free world is 2018, and it's reachable.

With Stacy Mintzer Herlihy, co-author of Your Baby's Best Shot
and Melody Butler of Nurses Who Vax
If the thought of meeting with a Congressional Representative scares you, don't let it. It's not that hard, as long as you're prepared. And were we ever prepared! Because when Shot@Life brought together 100 Champions from around the U.S. -- doctors, public health officials, nurses, parents, students -- they gave us a two-day crash course on global vaccines issues  (Storified for you to absorb in smaller bites), led by agencies supporting global vaccines initiatives. We had the privilege of hearing directly from representatives of the UN Foundation, Shot@Life, the World Health Organization (WHO), and GAVI Alliance reps, as well as polio survivor Dennis Ogbe. My favorite quote from the training was by pediatrician Dr. Margaret Fisher, who reminded everyone:

"When you choose not to immunize your child, you're playing Russian Roulette with your child."

And before the Champion Summit, Shot@Life invited a group of bloggers to participate in the UN Foundation Global Issues Fellowship, which was like our own mini TED conference on Conversations About Global Agencies, Public Health, Vaccines, and Communication: Challenges, Goals, Myths, and Next Steps. I felt so grateful and lucky to participate, and to spend time with the group pictured below. So grateful, in fact, that I've put together Storified versions of most of the talks below (just click on the "they talked about" links), so you, too, can share what we learned.
Some pretty damn amazing people. Recognize anyone?
Photo: Migdalia Rivera
Here are some of the write ups from the other Shot@Life/Global Issues Fellows (I'll add more as they come in):
Here are the wonderful people we ever-so-fortunate Global Issues Fellows got to hear from:

Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, former US Ambassador to Uganda and Burkina Faso, current Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs, US Dept of Health and Human Services, along with Peter Yeo, Vice President for Public Policy at the United Nations Foundation, spoke about health challenges around the globe -- include violence, and violence against women.
"Simple solutions to global violence against woman include having
a female police officer at the hospitals, as Namibia does."
Marie Claudet, a news producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and Noam Levey, a National Health Reporter for the LA Times, spoke about the challenges and ethics of, and strategies for, reporting on global health issues like vaccines.
"Life expectancies in parts of US, like the Mississsippi Delta,
are dismal by global standards, due to lack of health care."

Dr. Asad Majeed Khan, Deputy Chief of Mission, Embassy of Pakistan graciously talked about the Pakistani government's unwavering commitment to eradicating polio within its borders, and the challenges it faces in doing so.
"When public confidence in vaccines is eroded,
trust restoration takes time."

Photo: Migdalia Rivera
Teddy Ruge is co-founder of Project Diaspora and Hive Colab, and the Lead Social Media Strategist for the World Bank. He talked about our obligation to "Create the Right Buzz" while supporting, not displacing, local development efforts.
"The merits of your campaign should be: real, local, current issues,
not making non-locals feel good."

Photo: Flickr/Mashable (cropped)
Sarah Craven is Washington DC representation office Director of the United Nations Population Fund, the "Agency that Makes Sex Boring." She talked about current crises in global women's and reproductive health -- and if her facts and stories don't outrage you, read them again.
"Half the girls in Ethiopia are married before their 15th birthday,
often by well-intentioned parents."

Photo: Chloe Jeffreys
Will Davis is the Director of the United Nations Development Programme, Washington Representation Office. He spoke about the United Nations' role in today's world, including why "Global goals should not be about rich countries preaching to poor countries."
"Peacekeeping is an attempt to get a country back on its feet after a crisis,
including jobs, and access to justice."

Photo: Chloe Jeffreys
Devi Ramachandran Thomas, Director of the United Nations Foundation's Shot@Life program, spoke about prioritizing global children's health, including reducing child mortality through vaccinations and also by combating malnutrition, diarrhea, and malaria.
"In Mozambique, many parents will not name their child until after they've been vaccinated."
Me, Devi (center), Lucrecer Braxton
The incredibly engaging Aaron Sherinian is the United Nations Foundation's Vice President of Communications and Public Relations. He spoke about translating online efforts into real world global engagement that can actually make a difference.
"At the end of the day, social media trends remind us that humans have a lot in common."
Photo: UN Foundation
Now, hopefully, you're wondering "How can I help? Tell me tell me!" And of course, the answers are "get involved!" (Shot@Life's site has an excellent advocacy toolkit) and "donate!" Donate your time, donate funds, donate your voice in spreading the messages above, especially about global vaccine issues. You can always donate to Shot@Life directly, but you can also manage your advocacy and outreach with the Shot@Life app, or even donate photos -- each worth $1 towards global vaccines -- through the Donate a Photo app.

If there is a single message you should be taking away from the onslaught of information above, it is this: You have so many options for helping to get life-saving vaccines to the children who need them. Pick an option, and get going!


Again, my sincere thanks to the UN Foundation and Shot@Life, and everyone who made this incredible experience possible -- including my companions in the Shot@Life Champions Summit and Global Issues Fellowship. Disclosure: The UN Foundation provided my travel & lodgings for the two events.


Edinburgh Is My New Favorite City

I'd not been to Edinburgh since 1990, when I was 20 years old and pregnant, and my thoughtful studying abroad brother imported me for the UK for Spring Break to get my mind off being a 20 year old pregnant college student who was having a very difficult time deciding what to do about being a 20 year old pregnant college student.

I enjoyed that visit quite a lot, but I don't remember Edinburgh being quite so ... lively. And Sunny! And full of everything a easily pleased yet slightly snobbish and gustatorially-oriented person could ever want. It is my new favorite city. Look at the goods from my host friend's corner bakery! An endless selection, including Leo's favorite butter croissants. All freshly and perfectly baked, as top-notch as anything you might find in San Francisco (and the scones were better, natch).

The Edinburgh Farmers' Market, which is directly in the shadow of Edinburgh Castle, also beats anything like it in San Francisco or environs. The specialty meats alone (venisons, bison, Happiest Pigs in the World, and of course haggis; sorry, vegetarians) would make even the most casual carnivore sweat with anticipation. But then there were crepes. And oh the baked goods. And even the coffee. (Don't forget to follow the market on Twitter...)

The Farmer's Market's live music was also world-class. My damn iPhone was too full for video. Iz would have been pleased, I think -- she does love her music. Especially music that she finds first. And I doubt any friends back home would know these buskers. Too bad I'm on the front end of a business trip and so did not bring my family (my husband actually suggested I build out the front end of my UK business trip into a holiday, so I don't feel as bad as I might about not bringing the rest of the crew this time).
My hosts and I considered letting this turret in St. Cuthbert's, also in the shadow of The Castle. Who wouldn't. Right?
The weather was very very very very good, even atop the Castle where it was slightly windy. Everyone warned me UK weather at the end of February/start of March would be crap. But we experienced gloriously sunny, if chilly, days the entire weekend I stayed. Not to mention glorious views. Of ancientness. Everywhere. Ancient exists in California, but it is rarely so tangible and certainly not as omnipresent as it is in Edinburgh.

This is my obligatory Mon's Meg (a famous cannon) shot from the Castle. It is one of many, many, many military exhibits in the castle. My brother, who is a military historian as well as a Warner Brothers cartoons expert, gave me a comprehensive tour of those exhibits during our last visit, and as it wouldn't be the same without him, I did not visit those museums. However as there are very few words that rhyme with my name I rarely resist a shot (heh) like this one.

St. Margaret's Chapel, also part of the Castle, was built in the 12th century by King David I in honor of his mother. You have to love a boy who loves his mummy.

Most of the castle is not terribly accessible, though significant effort has been made to convert those parts that can be converted. I did like that they included touchable models with braille descriptions of some of important objects in the exhibits, such as the Sword of State (one of the Honours of Scotland, and part of the Crown Jewels exhibit). I also appreciated the affability of the very well informed docents. Did you know that Scottish kings often shared the throne if there were multiple eligible brothers, so that they did not kill each other over the crown? Robert the Bruce ended that era of reasonableness, though.

And, ho, geeks! On The Royal Mile below the Castle lies The World's End pub, so named because when it was founded, it was the last pub before the Edinburgh city wall, and anything outside the wall didn't matter to the snobs insde -- so the pub was literally considered The World's End.

Haggis, Neeps, and Tatties
Though I actually preferred the food and drink at the Tollbooth Tavern just lower on the Royal Mile. I did not get bonked on the head by the resident ghost, but I did find the perfect bitter but not too hoppy ale in The Flying Scotsman, and I am officially a haggis convert -- this plate of Haggis, Neeps (turnips), and Tatties (potatoes) is my new standard for comforting comfort food meals. Though I'm not sure where I'll find a good sheep's stomach to nibble on once I'm back home.
Back to the greatness that is Edinburgh -- my gracious, affable, brilliant, witty host and I did not have to walk more than a few short blocks from her street to find everything a person like me (and my husband) might want. Pehaps we will move here instead of San Francisco when our children leave home, because I would not mind living a stone's throw from a French deli that provides fresh goose rillette, a South African cafe that serves perfect coffee, and an Oxfam used book store (where we stocked up on several of the Horrible Histories titles that are not available in the US but which my host's children recommended as being just perfect for Mali and her similarly irreverent friends).

I also wouldn't mind being greeted with carpets of purple crocuses, white snowdrops (which I'd only ever heard of from British children's literature), and miniature yellow daffodils everywhere we looked.
The last place we visited during my shorter-than-48-hour visit was Rosslyn Chapel. This picture does not do justice to the its 16th century elaborately carved sandstone gorgeousness. Which, apparently, has been restored to its former beauty in large part due to throngs of tourists who came to see it and brought their entry fees with them, after it was featured in The Da Vinci Code movie. Which I had not realized. If you are ever in the Edinburgh area, however, I recommend it. (the Chapel actually reminded me of the similar intricate sandstone carvings at the Cambodian temple of Banteay Srei.)

Edinburgh was such a delight that I occasionally wondered if my host had pulled a Potemkin Village on me. Then I started thinking that perhaps Iz should go to Edinburgh University so we really would have a reason to come visit again. So if you get the opportunity to visit Edinburgh? Do it.