Most people have heard of Louis Pasteur, Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, whose innovative research years ago led to creation of the first vaccines to protect against rabies, cholera and polio. Discovering a new vaccine is a remarkable achievement, but getting those vaccines out into some of the toughest places on earth is also an extraordinary accomplishment.
Although he may not be a household name, Dr. Asm Amjad Hossain’s innovative methods for getting vaccines to children in Bangladesh exemplify the challenges involved in immunizing children against life-threatening diseases.
It was exciting to learn about Dr. Hossain’s important work and to recognize his contribution with the first Gates Vaccine Innovation Award. We recently established the award to acknowledge and reward individuals who achieve significant improvements in the prevention, control, or elimination of vaccine-preventable diseases through imaginative and pioneering approaches.
Dr. Hossain was chosen from among 117 nominees and will receive $250,000—most of which will be donated to a charity of his choice—in recognition of his success increasing immunization coverage in two districts of Bangladesh that had historically low vaccination rates. What especially impressed me about Dr. Hossain’s approach is how simple, yet effective, the interventions were.
As a district immunization and surveillance medical officer, Dr. Hossain inspired his team to identify the children they needed to reach. He looked at the performance of each field worker and helped them understand what would be needed to close the gap in vaccine coverage.
Health workers sought out pregnant women so they could estimate their due date and visit their newborns to administer vaccines. Families were encouraged to register their other children, and vaccinator’s phone numbers were written on each child’s vaccination card so parents could easily reach them.
Brochures with yearly vaccination schedules were distributed, which helped families remember the ages when children needed to return for their next vaccines. And a checklist was developed to monitor and supervise the quality of immunization sessions and effectiveness of mobilization activities.
The results were impressive. In 2006, 19,300 more children were fully vaccinated than the year before. In 2009 and 2010, an additional 28,000 children were fully vaccinated. These strategies have since been put into practice with thousands of field workers in other parts of Bangladesh, and they can easily be adapted in other countries.
Bangladesh has made tremendous strides in improving child health. Childhood deaths have been reduced by 65 percent since 1990, an amazing achievement. National immunization of children is a high priority there and the number of one-year-old children immunized is consistently high, often higher than industrialized nations.
Pasteur, Salk and Sabin made hugely important contributions to improving global health. I’m equally impressed with Dr. Hossain, a humble and gracious man. When we told him that he had won the award, he was moved to tears. The first words out of his mouth, when he could speak, were about how much this tribute would mean to the frontline health workers in Bangladesh and the importance of their collective contribution to ensuring children have a healthy future.