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In 1986, as a sophomore at Gettysburg College, I accompanied my dad, a pediatrician and vaccine researcher, on a two-week trip to Rwanda. I was instantly smitten with Africa, and in 1987 I returned — this time to Kenya, as part of a program through the School for International Training.
The program taught me a lot, but the real highlight was a month spent living with a Kenyan family in Kibera, on the outskirts of Nairobi. My 'Kenyan mom' Priscilla and my siblings Bonita, Emma and Shuggah accepted me as a part of the family. I saw them again in 1988, but sadly, we lost contact as I pursued pursue a career in global health.
Seven years later, while working at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, I became involved in my current life's work — helping accelerate the uptake of Hib & pneumococcal vaccines to prevent pneumonia and meningitis in developing countries. The World Health Organization needed help guiding developing countries in measuring their disease burden and developing a plan to accelerate these vaccines, and I was given the opportunity to contribute.
At that time, no developing countries routinely used Hib vaccines, and pneumococcal vaccines were not yet licensed, even in richer countries. I was young and naïve, but thrilled to be working on something I thought was important.
Much has changed since 1995. I now have two beautiful daughters of my own — and just last year, pneumococcal vaccines were introduced into Kenya's National Immunization Program, just months after they made their debut in the US — something that once would have been thought impossible.
So, it was with tremendous joy that I returned to Kenya last year to take part in the pneumococcal vaccine rollout. I couldn't hide my smile as I sat in a Kibera health center and watched a health worker immunize a beautiful baby girl. Without the efforts of international agencies, the Kenyan government and others, these parents would never have been able to afford the vaccine on their own, and their children would have gone unprotected.
The week also took a personal turn: I reconnected with my Kenyan family. I spent the afternoon with my siblings and their children in the same Kibera neighborhood where we lived in 1987. Shuggah was now a man over six feet tall with a son of his own. Emma, then just five years old, was now a mother and expecting a child.
As it turns out, Emma gave birth at Mbagathi Hospital less than 10 hours after we shared a meal together. By total coincidence, I was visiting the hospital the following morning. And so it was, nearly 25 years after my college visit, I had the dual satisfaction of meeting the newest member of my Kenyan family, and knowing he'd be protected by vaccination against pneumonia and meningitis, just like my kids are in the U.S.A.
Follow Dr. Orin Levine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/orinlevine
Excerpted from original article at www.huffingtonpost.com