At the end of 2012, Romania was the only EU country that did not provide for free the essential vaccinations for protecting babies against deadly or severe diseases. Of these, the pneumococcal vaccine is recognized by the international medical community as responsible for saving millions of lives of children around the world; in Romania it is recommended by pediatricians to prevent infections that can mutilate or take the lives of infants.

The challenge of the campaign initiated by the “Pretuieste Viata” (“Cherish Life”) Foundation was to set on the public agenda the issue of free pneumococcal vaccination in an election year marked by historic demands of the healthcare system – such as increasing the wages of doctors or reforming the oncology drugs program –, with the objective of compelling authorities to update the national vaccination program starting from 2013.

In doing so, we had the parents on our side – 70% of them knew that vaccination is a disease-preventing measure, the physicians – 82% of pediatricians recommend pneumococcal vaccination, noting that the lack of free access to vaccines is the main barrier, but also journalists – 80% of whom claim that free vaccination of children is a positive issue that should be more forcefully promoted by authorities. But there was no political will. Consequently, the target audience of the campaign was identified as consisting of authorities and decision makers, the civil society, parents, doctors, the media and bloggers.

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The campaign was developed starting from real cases with which the volunteers of the “Pretuieste Viata” Foundation had come into contact – children with sequelae or parents whose children had died as a result of pneumococcal infection. To generate a strong public reaction we would have had to organize public protests with the parents and children who had suffered from such diseases, but this move would not have stood out in the series of protests already so common in Romania. So we took to the streets with a powerful symbol – the abandoned toys of sick children. A touching symbol became the main character of a campaign that covered 365 days of social activism.

On November 12, the World Pneumonia Day, we took the sick children’s toys out in the street, creating the first ever teddy bear flash mob, and urging people to sign the pro-vaccination petition. The issue was expanded and brought on the political agenda in a series of roundtable talks held during the 2012 election campaign, followed by a seminar at the Parliament Palace held in January 2013. 150 politicians, physicians and journalists attended and signed the petition. On May 22, 2013, the minister of Healthcare announced the introduction of pneumococcal vaccination from the end of 2013, during an event for the nomination of the Healthy Children’s Ambassador, a baby who would be the first child vaccinated for free.

To educate the media about the importance of vaccination, we organized together with the Center for Independent Journalism a media training session in preparation for the introduction of free pneumococcal vaccination. 35 journalists from the national and local media attended “The Panic Virus” event, hosted by trainer Peg Willingham, Executive Director of Shot@Life, the vaccination program of the United Nations Foundation.

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Campaign Results

With 12,500 signatories of the petition and a media wave of support that generated throughout the 365 campaign days at least one piece of news every day on pneumococcal vaccination, with a total audience of about 18,000,000 people, the campaign went beyond reaching the usual awareness objectives, leading to a concrete decision in less than a year – a new vaccine administered for free to all newborns in Romania.