The following is an adaptation of remarks I delivered at the International Health Workforce Awards upon receiving the journalism award.
The story of health workers around the world is one of extraordinary effort and dedication. When my wife gave birth to our first child three weeks ago, I saw this at work. From a doctor who delivered the baby on his day off to the nurse who had already clocked out for the day and literally took off her coat on her way out to help with the delivery, health staff went above and beyond for my family.
In reflecting on that experience, I am struck by the fact that it is not all that unique. Community-health-care award winner Damali Inhensiko is proof. As a midwife in a rural health center in Uganda, she is the sole health-care provider and administrator for the facility. She has led a team of community-health workers who helped improve vaccine coverage from 60 percent to 90 percent, while delivering babies, taking care of children and mothers post-pregnancy and offering whatever health services are needed.
As a journalist, I believe there are two small ways that our profession can support people like Damali in the work that they do: Give credit where it is due and raise the importance of health-worker protection.
When the world sees the end of polio and guinea worm as soon as this year, stories will likely focus on the efforts led by Bill Gates and Jimmy Carter, respectively. The two men and their organizations deserve praise and credit for helping to galvanize eradication, but they were not the leading cause for bringing an end to the two. Volunteers and community-health workers deserve the bulk of the credit for educating communities and distributing vaccines.
In some cases, these workers are literally risking their lives. The polio-vaccine workers in Pakistan require body guards to protect them against violent attacks. With only a few case in the country each year, it is safe to say that it is more risky and deadly to be a polio-vaccine worker in Pakistan than a child vulnerable to polio.
Think about that for a moment. These health workers are putting their lives on the line to end polio in their communities. That kind of work takes an immense amount of courage. I, frankly, don’t think I could do what they are doing.
I cannot provide direct protection to those vaccinators, but I can report on the issues of insecurity they face. Journalists can shed a light on the attacks faced by health workers in countries like Afghanistan and Syria. They can work to hold the perpetrators of such attacks to account for their transgressions.
And it is why I will keep saying that the heroic work of Pakistan’s polio-vaccine workers deserve a Nobel Peace Prize. The symbolic award can confer the importance of their work, recognize the extraordinary risk they face, and raise the importance of neutrality and protection for health workers worldwide.