Painting Pictures and Saving Lives

Sophie Blackall
I can read that 380 children die a day globally from measles, and yet, as I wave my own healthy children off to school in the morning, I cannot possibly imagine this until I see it.

Sophie Blackall’s images are the things of whimsical dreams; the kind that upon waking, you immediately try to fall back asleep just to experience more.

The Brooklyn-based Australian artist has illustrated some 20 children’s books, the quirky Missed Connections, as well as a celebrated poster for the New York transit authority. And while her work has long captured imaginations of all ages, her May 2012 trip with the Measles and Rubella Initiative—of which the American Red Cross is a founding member—offered a chance to use the power of a picture like never before.

“I can read that 380 children die a day globally from measles, and yet, as I wave my own healthy children off to school in the morning, I cannot possibly imagine this until I see it,” said Blackall. “I love making pictures that encourage children to turn pages or cheer up subway commuters, but I've never worked on pictures which might conceivably save lives.”

As a part of this innovative partnership, Blackall traveled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to speak with communities affected by measles, which remains a prevalent cause of child mortality.

Families in the DRC suffered the largest measles outbreaks of 2011, with more than 135,000 cases and at least 1,500 child deaths. The outbreaks continue this year in areas where children have not had access to the measles vaccine, which costs only one U.S. dollar. Measles is especially fatal to children who are malnourished or otherwise have weakened immune systems.

Inspired by what she had seen, she began producing a series of illustrations that will be used in the field and in doctor’s offices to encourage mothers to get their children vaccinated. 

“It has been wonderful working on these paintings and rather strange to emerge back in the world,” she wrote in her blog upon her return. “My head has been filled with the Congo for months, with images of mothers and babies waiting in long, snaking lines outside tiny huts where health workers vaccinate one child at a time. Images of long, hollowed-out canoes delivering the vaccine up the river to remote villages. Images of children holding up their purple-dyed pinky fingers to show they've been vaccinated and are safe from measles.”

The complete series, “Let Every Child Have a Name: The Road to a World Without Measles” is being launched this week in both Washington, D.C., and New York City, and is now online at www.measlesrubellainitiative.org. Inspired by the fact that in some parts of Africa families don’t name their children until the threat of measles has passed, the exhibit takes viewers throughout the vaccination journey, from plane to pirogue to remote village campaigns.

“I was so inspired by the dedication and passion of health workers and families in the Congo, and I hope their illustrated stories will inspire others to get involved,” said Blackall. “Together we can support their efforts and work to end measles, and let every child have a name."

About the American Red Cross:
The American Red Cross shelters, feeds and provides emotional support to victims of disasters; supplies about 40 percent of the nation's blood; teaches skills that save lives; provides international humanitarian aid; and supports military members and their families. The Red Cross is a not-for-profit organization that depends on volunteers and the generosity of the American public to perform its mission. For more information, please visit redcross.org or visit us on Twitter at @RedCross.

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