Written by Sara Horein, American Red Cross volunteer and Tiffany Circle Donor
Sara recently traveled to Kenya to witness the life-saving work of the Measles and Rubella partnership. While the disease is most prominent thousands of miles from Madison, Wisconsin, it’s just a plane ride away.
I recently returned from a trip to Kenya where the government —supported by the American Red Cross and our partners in the fight to eliminate measles—completed a successful nine-day vaccination campaign in the East African country. Targeting 19 million children between nine months and 14 years old, this effort was Kenya’s largest immunization campaign in the Measles & Rubella Initiative’s 15-year history.
Although preventable by a safe, effective and inexpensive vaccine in use for over 50 years, measles still kills about 315 children every day. Conditions in Kenya made this campaign particularly vital: 45.9 percent of the population currently live in poverty, while many children have limited or no access to medical treatment and are often malnourished.
Because of widespread poverty and weak public health infrastructure, only 79 percent of children in Kenya receive vaccines through the routine immunization system. The large number of unvaccinated children can lead to deadly measles outbreaks, such as a 2016 outbreak in remote Mandera County. These outbreaks are particularly deadly in communities that are also experiencing conflict or natural disaster, with the youngest children—those less than two years of age— at greatest risk of dying from the disease. In recent years, Kenya has experienced extreme flooding and drought, increased security issues and urban growth.
The safe, effective and inexpensive vaccines delivered throughout Kenya will undoubtedly add to the growing number of lives saved through the Measles & Rubella Initiative. Since 2001, the Initiative has helped immunize more than 2 billion children in 88 countries. This work has had an extraordinary impact. The number of measles deaths decreased by 79 percent between 2000 and 2014— saving the lives of 17.1 million children.
The seemingly impossible feat of reaching 19 million children in just nine days is only achievable through dedicated Red Cross volunteers. The success of any campaign relies on mobilizing parents and caregivers to bring their children to vaccination centers, and Red Cross volunteers are ideally located and well equipped to carry out this vital task. They speak the local language, know community members and understand local customs.
Leading up to and during the nine-day campaign, the Red Cross trained more than 1,300 local volunteers to canvass neighborhoods throughout Nairobi, Bungoma and Tharaka Nithi. These volunteers played a fundamental role in building awareness, educating parents and calling them to action on vaccination days. While they used many forms of communication—including megaphones, radio ads, and text messages—the most relied-upon and effective method was personal outreach through house-to-house visits. This was particularly important in engaging households that may otherwise not be reached through traditional communications.
As a Red Cross volunteer and donor, I witnessed the strong partnership and lifesaving efforts between the American Red Cross and Kenya Red Cross. The breadth and depth of staff knowledge, dedication of local volunteers and overwhelming resilience of Kenyans amazed me. It was exciting to see donor dollars hard at work, saving lives one vaccination at a time. The Measles & Rubella Initiative is important because the virus is only one plane ride away – living in one shared world, we need to improve the lives of everyone. I am honored and humbled to have represented the American Red Cross during this mission-focused trip in the fight to eliminate measles.
Watch Sara and other Red Cross volunteers’ trip to Kenya to vaccinate millions of Kenya children with Measles and Rubella vaccines.
How YOU can help: Donate! Text PREVENT to 90999 to give $10 to the Red Cross and help us vaccinate children against measles. Learn more here.