Throughout her life, Rosalynn Carter was a true champion of public health. During her time as first lady, Carter “led the President’s Commission on Mental Health and helped to bring about passage of the 1980 Mental Health System Act, which positively reformed publicly funded mental health programs.”
She was also a staunch supporter of vaccinations and co-founded the non-profit Every Child By Two in 1991, now known as Vaccinate Your Family (VYF). Following her death on November 19, 2023, VYF honors her memory and service.
“Mrs. Carter’s unwavering dedication to families and genuine care for our nation’s children has left an indelible mark on our society,” writes VYF. “Her decades of advocacy work to create widespread access to vaccines will ultimately save millions of lives.”
Measles outbreak creates a mission
Amidst a measles epidemic that sickened 55,000 people and killed over 120 in the United States in the early 1990s, Carter and her co-founder, Betty Bumpers, created Every Child By Two. The two women traveled to more than a dozen states—eventually reaching all 50 —to foster immunization efforts and build immunization coalitions.
“It was on these trips that the access barriers to vaccines were uncovered and systemic changes were put into place to ensure that every child was immunized on time,” writes VYF.
Upon this realization of systemic inefficiencies, Carter and Bumpers ratcheted up their work in an attempt to make vaccines available for every child.
As a result, “Carter and Bumpers’ work to bring attention to childhood vaccines at the federal level has been credited as the catalyst behind the Vaccines for Children (VFC) program, which provides access to free vaccines to our nation’s uninsured and underinsured children. Widespread access to childhood vaccines – thanks to the VFC program – will save more than 1 million lives of children vaccinated in the U.S. since the program’s launch in 1994,” writes VYF.
The two women continued their vaccine advocacy by working in a bipartisan way with politicians. Eventually, their efforts secured a “Presidential Directive from the White House in 2000 [ensuring] that the children and pregnant people served by WIC are offered immunization screenings and guided to services as needed.”
A lasting legacy
“We must consider every possibility and look at every institution as a place in which to locate change for the better, change that will nourish our nation’s littlest human resources,” said Carter and Bumpers in 1995. “We must seek out allies to help us reach the children, and provide the basic, necessary gift of life-protecting vaccinations.”
As VYF and the vaccination community mourn the loss of Rosalynn Carter, we acknowledge the indelible mark she has made on public health. Equally important, as vaccination rates falter, particularly among the children Carter worked to protect, her legacy is more important than ever. VYF reaffirms its commitment to Carter’s mission to protect people of all ages from vaccine-preventable diseases.