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Taking Immunization to Public Officials

By Irvin B. Harrell

Janice Hawkins, a nurse and senior lecturer at the School of Nursing, has been on a mission for the past three years, and that mission is gaining momentum at Old Dominion University and statewide.

Hawkins is a proponent of Shot@Life, which "educates, connects and empowers individuals to champion global vaccines as one of the most effective ways to save the lives of children in developing countries." Worldwide, one in five children does not have access to life-saving vaccines because of the lack of resources, inadequate health systems, in-country conflict and social/geographical exclusion.

With the resurgence of diseases globally, immunizations continue to be critical to the health of children. Measles, considered rare and deadly, is highly contagious with symptoms such as high fever, cough, runny nose, water eyes and rashes. From January to September 2019, more than 1,200 cases of measles were confirmed in the United States across 30 states. Worldwide, 170 countries reported more than 120,000 cases - a 300% increase of incidences of the disease from 2018.

Polio is a crippling and potentially deadly disease, which has become rare due to vaccinations. In September, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a polio outbreak in the Philippines.

Shot@Life, a United Nations Foundation organization, rallies members of the public, public officials, businesses, and others - through education, grass roots advocacy, and fundraising - to support and invest in the global childhood immunization programs offered by UNICEF, the WHO and the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations (GAVI).

Hawkins and other School of Nursing faculty have welcomed the organization's advocacy training, which is producing a growing number of "Shot@Life champions" among their students. Thus far, nearly 200 students and faculty at ODU have been trained as advocates.

"What we're doing here in the School of Nursing is helping healthcare workers find their voices as political advocates," she said. "It's about empowering nurses to be a lot more vocal about the need for vaccines so that our elected officials are able to make informed decisions."

In October, Hawkins and several Virginia Shot@Life champions went to Washington, D.C., to meet with congressional officials to stress the need for continued financial support of the international effort to ensure vaccine availability. While there, she spent a whole day of training, which included mock sessions with congressional members to practice what to say, as well as getting updates on outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases around the world.

Hawkins first got involved in Shot@Life about three years ago, when one of her colleagues - Deborah Gray, a Fulbright Scholar and clinical associate professor for ODU's School of Nursing - invited her to join the organization. From that point on, Hawkins was hooked. Her crusade has evolved from simply spreading the word to others to incorporating such advocacy in the school's curriculum.

"For three years now, we've been making it part of the curriculum for undergraduate nursing students, so it's offered during their class time," Hawkins said. "Graduate students also are invited to participate in training sessions and congressional member visits."

Because of her commitment and advocacy, Hawkins has been featured on Shot@Life's website as a "Champion Spotlight."

"I've been an advocate for vaccines for many years," she told the organization. "For me, the most meaningful aspect of attending the Champion Summits is the working skills that I have gained as a political activist. Prior to joining the campaign, I had minimal experience interacting with members of Congress. I was unfamiliar with the process and found it intimidating. The Shot@Life training, resources and mentored experiences have greatly increased my political advocacy knowledge and skill set."

Hawkins has taken those skills and used them to recruit and educate others. The thing to keep in mind is the overall mission of healthcare professionals, she says.

"As nurses, in our code of ethics, we are required to be patient advocates, and I think that's probably true of all health professionals," she said. "I think our students get that in a hospital scenario, but getting them to understand from a community-based scenario is sometimes more difficult."

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