Kate O’Brien on Vaccines and Social Justice

What is PHU?

Public Health United, Inc. (PHU) is a non-profit organization that improves science communication through podcasts, outreach, and public engagement training for scientists. Dr. Nina Martin is PHU’s Chief Executive and host of their weekly podcast, with each episode featuring a different public health science expert with stories and insights on science communication.  At IVAC, Nina does research on adult vaccines on the Policy and Advocacy Communications Team.

PHU recently featured Executive Director of IVAC, Kate O’Brien. The podcast was co-hosted by Swati Sudarsan, who works on pneumonia advocacy and global coordination on IVAC’s Policy and Advocacy Communications Team.

Dr. O’Brien is a sitting member of the Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE), which advises the World Health Organization on global vaccine policy, and serves on the Gavi Board representing the Technical and Research constituency. She is a senior advisor at the Center for American Indian Health, and of course, a beloved professor in the Department of International Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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During this episode, Dr. O’Brien tells us a little about who she is and why we should care about vaccines. A pediatrician by training, she explains that her passion for health equity was fostered during her time in Haiti, where she saw first-hand the consequences of vaccine-preventable disease on children. Here she developed “a deep desire to contribute to the vaccine world.” Because of this experience, Dr. O’Brien believes that vaccines are fundamentally a social justice issue. The current reality that a poorer person is less likely to be vaccinated than someone from a higher income setting is what she calls “a moral failing” of our society.

Part of the reason this happens is because there needs to be greater financing for vaccines. Dr. O’Brien is working to advance scientific discussions by helping quantify the “full public health value of vaccines.” For example, vaccines not only prevent disease in an immunized child, but they can protect the people around them, can help families avert the costs of hospitalization from disease, and can even help mitigate an emerging crisis – antibiotic resistance. Dr. O’Brien is also working to make vaccines more accessible to families in novel ways. For example, new evidence has demonstrated that fewer doses of pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) may be effective in areas where pneumonia transmission is virtually eliminated and thus be able to save government’s billions of dollars, an important benefit to global vaccine policy and implementation.

Dr. O’Brien’s passion for vaccines extends beyond the office and to her family dining table. This holiday season, take Dr. O’Brien’s advice and talk to your family about their vaccination status. For more on Dr. O’Brien’s take, click here to listen or download the episode.

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