Yesterday, at the United Nations in New York, world leaders gathered for an incredible “Opening Ceremony” for World Health Day. For the first time, World Health Day is an annual event, in commemoration of World Health Day that was established as a UN-backed annual event in 1948.
More than 600 million people around the world have been vaccinated against the five major childhood diseases – smallpox, polio, tetanus, polio, and hepatitis. This year is a historic marker in terms of childhood vaccination—50 years after the event in which a man from Bangladesh saved the lives of the first five people to be vaccinated in New York City. A polio outbreak and high alert was triggered, which was the start of the first global vaccination campaign.
There is no way to overstate the importance of universal vaccination as a cornerstone of the global health system—an enabler of maternal and child health, and as a force for public health. One of the reasons for the spread of a virus like influenza is vaccination fails, and the best defense is by vaccinating! Vaccinating children is not only a cost-effective form of health care, but a powerful tool to prevent death and disease.
On World Health Day, we remember how we can help one another take a stand. On July 11, 14 to be exact, you can make your voices heard and participate in the World Vaccine Day called May the 4th Be With You .
May the 4th be with you offers a truly opportunity for us to renew, empower, and seek answers to the questions of humanity. If we encourage our leaders and communities to push for the implementation of better, more reliable responses to health threats, we stand a good chance at developing better, more reliable health systems. We stand a better chance at, in turn, reducing health inequalities in countries and fighting disease like HIV and the Ebola virus. We stand a better chance at, in turn, creating an even safer world, and a world free of fear.
The point is, getting vaccinated is great—regardless of age. On World Health Day, it’s easy to spread good words and feel celebratory. But let’s look back to 1949, when a man named Muhammad Yunus sacrificed the fruits of a successful business to ensure the lives of other people. A man who would never consider getting sick himself, and instead want to help sick people.
This courageous man, who had the courage to celebrate the lives of others, did not make it very far in life—and no one knows why.
Mani Ali, a student in Pakistan, saved his life with an innovative group of ideas, giving health education to young people.
The entire infectious disease epidemic of 1918-19 began in Swat in Pakistan, with outbreaks in 1919. A similar outbreak was occurring just 15 miles away in Abbottabad. People who would never think to go to the hospital came to the university campus to receive health education from the doctors in villages.
By 1927, medical problems in Swat were first handled by non-traditional organizations such as Sir Syed Memorial and Sir Ali Nazir Memorial. This group came together to provide better health education to young people from the villages—and they ensured that the small clinic became the most significant community health center in Swat.
Many of these simple public health initiatives still occur today, which serves as an effective reminder to everyone that together we can indeed make a difference.
I’ll remind you, too, that when we truly demand changes, it can change. The vaccination campaign against smallpox received the United Nations’ initial approval in 1949 and the campaign for free measles vaccination in India kicked off in 1955 and continued until 1965. And I remember when we first got rid of polio and other childhood diseases—that campaign has continued and was expanded upon to help save the lives of more than a billion people. That campaign is still going strong today.
Think about your past, your present, and your future—don’t wait for somebody else to figure out how to do it. Make it your own. The world today needs each and every one of us to take a stand against preventable disease. We need one another to ensure the legacy that Muhammad Yunus leaves us. And we need to continue to work together in protecting one another’s future.