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Vaccinations in Brazil

Year: 1974
Setting: French consulate in Rio de Janeiro
Position: Medical student

I am a third-year medical student at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. I have finished my two-year basic training in Paris and it is my second year of studying medicine in Portuguese. I transferred to Brazil because my family lives there and I want to become a tropical disease specialist to take care of the neediest patients on the planet and implement the ideals of the 1968 student revolt. Bridging the gap between the first and the third worlds becomes a passion of mine.

Everything goes well and life is exciting. I have discovered a rich, new culture and rapidly adjusted to it. Suddenly, a type-A meningococcal meningitis epidemic develops throughout the country, killing scores of people. Tens of millions of vaccines are produced in haste in Lyon, France, by the Merieux Institute, and a massive immunization campaign is under way. It is carried out mainly by the Brazilian army and its scope is unprecedented.

I call the French Consulate doctor of reference whom I like and admire for his energy, optimism and professional approach to ask if I can be of any help. He invites me to participate in vaccinating French expatriates and their families. In the next couple of days I find myself using a Pedojet on hundreds of arms. This also gives me the first opportunity of my life to observe certain aspects of human behavior in times of crisis. Some people try to cut lines, some pull all kinds of stunts and use influence to get vaccinated first. To my amazement, these are often people of prominent social status including business leaders. It is quite an eye-opener on people’s character, moral values and social mores. Moreover, it provides me with the opportunity to witness the pivotal role a general practitioner can play in dire circumstances. Despite the sometimes-poor behavior of those in the lines, the immunization campaign is a resounding success and later became a model to follow.

Lesson for the doctor: In times of doubt about the meaning of life, always remember that a doctor’s job is one of the most important in the world.

Yann Meunier, MD, is the health promotion manager for the Stanford Prevention Research Center. He formerly practiced medicine in developed and developing countries throughout Europe, Africa and Asia. Each week, he will share some of his experiences with patients in remote corners of the world.

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