Changing the face of global health: one boy gets his measles vaccine, another boy goes blind.

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On the first day our PATH team was in Madhya Pradesh, a large state in the heart of India, we met six-year-old Satish. He wore a brown stocking cap and knee-high pink socks and had huge dark eyes that could no longer see. The illness that struck him blind also left dark scars over much of his body. “Measles?” wondered the three doctors we were with.

On our second day, we traveled to the next village over, where women sat cross-legged in a crowded and lively courtyard with babies in their laps. It was the monthly immunization day.

Narendra, a one-year-old boy with wispy brown curls, was getting his measles vaccine and a spoonful of vitamin A. He squirmed and wailed at the pinch of the needle, but once it was over he was easily calmed by a packet of Orange Tiger Biscuits. At first he just enjoyed the sight of the bright colors of the wrapper. Then he found the cookie inside.

Measles is still serious

After witnessing what had happened to Satish, the measles vaccine Narendra received seemed like a godsend to me. The mothers in that courtyard were clearly convinced as well.

In places like the United States, where vaccines and treatment are common, we’ve forgotten that measles can lead to serious complications such as blindness. It’s still the leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths in children worldwide, particularly in India, where almost three-fourths of the world’s measles deaths occurred in 2008 (the most recently available data).

In Madhya Pradesh, immunization rates for measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases were so low that PATH was asked to lend our expertise. We’re helping the state’s immunization program reach more children with better services by training frontline care workers, educating parents about the importance of vaccines, and ensuring that immunization days happen regularly and are well run.

Protection from a tragic fate

Regular immunization days weren’t around when Satish was a baby, and he missed a number of his childhood vaccines. On the day we visited, the doctors examined the boy, trying to discern the extent of his blindness. One of them held out a packet of cookies. Satish reached here and there, but couldn’t find it.

The doctors encouraged the boy’s mother, who is widowed, to take Satish to the district hospital. She was hesitant—missing even one day of work as a field laborer could leave the family hungry. It was a reminder of why bringing vaccines to villages is so important.

Immunization rates are up in Madhya Pradesh, and, thankfully, cases like Satish’s are increasingly rare. A dedicated group of PATH staff in India and their public health counterparts are making sure Narendra and children in hundreds of other villages are protected.


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