Patients Inspire Us to Write a New Ending

Published on: March 9, 2021

Dr. Corey Robertson, Senior Director of Scientific and Medical Affairs, shares how patients drive us to live up to the credo that no one should suffer or die from a vaccine-preventable disease.

They are some of the most moving, influential stories I have ever heard. They inspire me to continue working. They drive the purpose behind my work. When I have a hard day or feel overwhelmed, thinking of them renews my dedication and refreshes my resolve. These stories are precious. 

And I want to put an end to them.

They are the stories of families whose lives have been changed by meningococcal disease – the real people behind the statistics like the 10-15% mortality rate, or the 1 in 5 survivors who live with permanent disability. Working with the National Meningitis Association brings me in contact with many of these remarkable people, who do everything they can to turn their own heartache into lifesaving awareness for others – for a future where these stories no longer happen, and no longer need to be told. The late Lynn Bozof was one of those amazing souls who I will never forget. She did so much to save so many children after losing one of her own. Her son Evan was a 20-year-old college baseball player when a meningococcal infection took his life. She became one of the original M.O.M.s (Moms on Meningitis), a group that grew to become the National Meningitis Association, which Lynn led for more than 15 years. 

While we continue the scientific pursuits to improve protection against infections like meningococcal disease (and others), not all of the unmet needs in front of us can be solved in the laboratory or by a clinical trial. 

There will always be a need for education to make sure parents, teens, and communities at large understand how meningococcal disease can spread. It’s just as important that medical practitioners are alert to the need to sustain vaccination coverage for the CDC-recommended first dose of MenACWY and improve coverage for the second dose. In a busy medical practice, it is understandable that a relatively rare threat like meningococcal disease may not always be top of mind. However, it’s also true that comfort can lead to unintended consequences. Early in my career as a “disease detective,” during a school-based outbreak of pertussis, we discovered that some providers did not consider pertussis in their differential diagnosis of cough illness, complacent in their assumption that protection from childhood vaccination was long lasting. In addition, the outbreaks of measles that have occurred in recent years reveal how easily diseases that we think are contained can become a threat once again. Out of sight and out of mind does not mean out of danger. 

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many parents have chosen to postpone routine care including childhood vaccinations, creating an opportunity for a potential resurgence of vaccine-preventable diseases. As this situation was developing, Sanofi worked with closely with healthcare professionals to understand the difficulties they faced preparing their offices for visits and scheduling routine, catch-up, and booster vaccination for their patients. Using insights from those conversations and our collaboration with the Immunization Action Coalition, we created guidebooks called Adaptive Vaccination Solutions. These resources provide straightforward steps for establishing protocols to help offices maximize social distancing to the extent possible while providing needed immunizations. 

Regrettably, the COVID-19 pandemic is not the only barrier that keeps all the people who could benefit from vaccinations from receiving them. Racial, ethnic, and economic factors play a distressingly disproportionate role in determining access to care, quality of care, and health outcomes. The purpose of vaccines is to help protect communities as well as individuals; they must be widely distributed and available for that protection to be as meaningful and as effective as possible. Since 1994, the Vaccines for Children (VFC) Program has helped provide vaccinations to children whose parents or guardians may not be able to afford them. Over the ensuing 25 years, as pediatric vaccination rates across groups increased, the racial and ethnic disparities among them narrowed. The inequities we see in our healthcare system are real, but a program like VFC has demonstrated that they are not insurmountable. 

Public health is a multifaceted discipline. I’m proud that our company complements its clinical development efforts to create and improve vaccines with other projects to help overcome barriers that keep people from getting the immunizations they need. Adaptive Vaccination Solutions is one such example. Our collaboration with advocates like the National Meningitis Association is another. As we continue working to live up to our credo that no one should suffer or die from a vaccine-preventable disease, we will continue to look for ways to make a difference in our communities. We owe this to the people whose heart-wrenching stories move us: to do everything we can to try to prevent any more such stories from happening.