Penn’s Sarah Hughes: A United Nations Foundation ‘Champion’ for Vaccination

The University of Pennsylvania’s Sarah Hughes didn’t always consider herself an advocate. But she’s also not one to pass up an opportunity to help.

A crucial opportunity came along earlier this year when a friend suggested that Hughes would be a good candidate to promote the United Nations Foundation’s “Shot@Life” program, which aims to eradicate polio and improve global access to vaccinations. Each year, 100 Shot@Life “Champions” are selected to spread the word, lobby policymakers and raise money for the cause.

“I don’t know how you say no to doing something like that,” says Hughes, an assistant to Christopher Hunter, professor and chair of the Penn School of Veterinary Medicine’s Department of Pathobiology.

Already a firm believer in the value of vaccines, Hughes quickly applied and was selected to be a Champion. In immersing herself in the facts about vaccination, she recalled how, during the H1N1 “swine flu” outbreak of 2009, she spent half a day waiting in line to get her son, a toddler at the time, vaccinated. She realized that her motherly instincts were shared across the world.

“There are women in Uganda who walk for three days just to get their children vaccinated, and I only have to drive two miles to their pediatrician,” Hughes says.

In one of her first official experiences as a Champion, Hughes traveled to Washington in February to lobby Congress for international aid to support public-health initiatives. In a training session before the visits to Capitol Hill offices, she learned compelling statistics about the need for vaccines.  

Among them: A child dies every 20 seconds from an infectious disease that would be preventable with a vaccine. Hughes was also surprised to find out that $20 can vaccinate a child in a developing country against four major diseases: polio, measles, pneumonia and rotavirus.

“That’s less than my co-pay for one visit to the pediatrician,” she says.

Through the work of numerous partner organizations, including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the American Red Cross, the American Academy of Pediatrics and UNICEF, the UN Foundation, founded by Ted Turner, has already played a role in reducing polio cases by 99 percent around the world. In the year ahead, the Foundation will work to boost distribution of measles-rubella vaccines to Rwanda and other developing countries.

As a Champion for the Shot@Life campaign, Hughes hopes to spread the word to friends and family as well as to the public. And she’s looking for ways to involve the Penn community as well.

“Because I work for an immunologist here at Penn and I see the good work he’s doing, it makes me believe in the power of science,” Hughes says. “When you hear about children dying of preventable disease, it’s heartbreaking. The science is there and the vaccines are there, it’s just a matter of getting them to where they are needed.”

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