I came across a quote that stopped me in my tracks; it was gathered by researchers studying immunization trends amongst children with disabilities in Nepal’s Makwanpur Region in 2010. A mother confided to the researcher, “God wouldn’t make my child have an intellectual disability and then give him polio.”
I’m not sure how I would have responded. It wasn’t a question as such. Yet there was something about the way she said it that demanded a response.
I believe that response came on 17 December 2016. In the Léopold Sédar Senghor Stadium in Dakar, Senegal, thousands witnessed the most marginalized members of our society, those with intellectual disabilities, play a prominent role in the Afrivac Foundation’s inaugural historic Gala Football Match. The match was held to help raise the importance of universal access to vaccinations, a cause closely linked to the efforts of Lions Clubs International Foundation (LCIF) to close the immunization gap. Young Special Olympics athletes tightly gripped the hands of football legends, including former French national players Nicolas Anelka, Ousmane Dabo and Hervé Renard while they paraded into the stadium. Proud Lions and Leos watched as the parade of unity served as a reminder that all children, including those with intellectual disabilities, must be included in universal childhood immunization efforts if they, too, are to be given a chance to become fit, healthy sports stars.
Individuals with intellectual disabilities are at equal and oftentimes greater risk of contracting the diseases that vaccinations aim to stave off. Yet rates of immunization amongst individuals with disabilities are most often lower than that of the general population in many developed and developing nations, despite the fact that immunization rates have improved dramatically around the world.
Immunization and disability are inextricably linked and may be seen to be both a cause and consequence of the other. A child may develop an intellectual disability as a result of a disease that may have been avoided by a vaccination – or another preventative health intervention – and a child with an intellectual disability may be deprived access to immunizations because of his or her disability. This is sometimes because of the naivety of the child’s mother and sometimes due to a variety of environmental factors including adverse policies, negative attitudes, a lack of accessible services, inadequate resources, and a dangerous combination of stigma, ignorance, and prejudice.
Special Olympics and LCIF are working hard to change this. In ways big and small, and as a key partner of Gavi, LCIF has led the way in ensuring that Special Olympics athletes and all individuals with intellectual disabilities have the same access to immunizations and vaccines so that a healthy and fulfilling life can be shared by all.
Known primarily as a global organization that provides sports opportunities for children and adults with intellectual disabilities, Special Olympics also represents the world’s largest public health screening program for individuals with intellectual disabilities. With the support of LCIF, Special Olympics holds forums to provide valuable health education to families including promoting immunizations, working with partners to improve access to health resources, and advocating to governments worldwide to provide services and opportunities for all citizens in their countries. To achieve this, Special Olympics uses sports as a tool to unite, educate, include, advocate and, through partnerships like the one with LCIF, to vaccinate too.
Ensuring universal access to immunizations is a team sport. Leading partners like LCIF have positioned both the Special Olympics movement and Special Olympics athletes to win both on and off the field. Special Olympics is committed to working with governments and partner organizations including LCIF to ensure that the most vulnerable among us be included in the immunization game plan and emerge as players rather than spectators.
On 17 December, Special Olympics athletes were just that – players. Through a partnership with Speak Up Africa and Africa United, an innovative pan-African initiative led by the Confederation of African Football (CAF) and the African Union, Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, World Bank Group, CDC Foundation and celebrities, individuals with intellectual disabilities performed as drum majorettes to the cheers of the crowd. In a display of inclusive sport, two Special Olympics Unified football teams each comprising equal numbers of youth with and without intellectual disabilities played together in a curtain-raiser game to the final. Supportive Leos served as ball boys and cheered on the athletes. Energetic adolescents showed off their skills and reminded us that immunization campaigns should not be limited to children, but rather extended across the lifespan to include protecting adolescents and adults against life-threatening diseases such as influenza, meningitis, and cancer.
When the game drew to a close, the 25,000-strong crowd flooded through the stadium gates equipped with greater knowledge on the importance of immunizations, and a commitment to maintaining their health and that of their children. The message that vaccines are an effective, low-risk, and inexpensive means of preventing many serious diseases in all children and adults was heard loud and clear across Dakar. Now it is our collective responsibility – through partnerships between Special Olympics, Africa Unite, Lions Clubs International Foundation and many more – to ensure that that message reaches families in all corners of this world, including Nepal.