James Conway: Advocating for Immunization, At Home and Abroad

Advocacy is a way of life for James Conway, MD.

The pediatric infectious disease specialist realized over a decade ago that the best way for him to improve children’s lives wasn’t through bench research, or even direct patient care.

Instead, it was through educating clinicians, families, and the public on the benefits of immunization -- the most influential public health intervention, and one that the World Health Organization estimates saves between two and three million lives each year.

First Steps

Dr. Conway’s interest in advocacy began when he was on the University of Indiana School of Medicine faculty, where he cared for many internationally adopted children who had never been vaccinated.

He began working with the Indiana health department on local immunization outreach, but soon expanded his efforts globally. A grant aimed at teaching mid-level providers in Kenya how to run a vaccine program resulted in a significant improvement in immunization rates there.

“I realized I could make a bigger impact as a teacher than as a basic scientist,” he recalled. “I switched gears into education – it’s a powerful force to shape people’s behavior and advocate for something I really believe in.”

‘Every Opportunity to Spread the Word’

In 2005, Dr. Conway came to the University of Wisconsin, and his advocacy efforts took off.

As a professor in the Department of Pediatrics and the associate director for health sciences at the UW Global Health Institute, he directs courses and international field experiences for medical students, conducts research on vaccine effectiveness, and leads efforts to improve immunization programs overseas.

He also chairs the Wisconsin chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) Committee on Immunizations and Infectious Diseases; collaborates with local and state partners on numerous immunization outreach projects; speaks at professional society meetings; and makes many media appearances.

“I take every opportunity to spread the word on the importance of immunization, because there is so much misinformation out there,” he explained.

Above, Dr. Conway and colleague Dean Blumberg, MD, visited Washington, DC, in July 2014 to advocate for worldwide vaccine access.
Above, Dr. Conway and colleague Dean
Blumberg, MD, visited Washington,
DC, in July 2014 to advocate for worldwide
vaccine access.

From Madison to Washington to Nepal

In June 2014, Dr. Conway collaborated with the Wisconsin AAP, the Carbone Cancer Center and the Department of Health Services’ immunization program to organize the Wisconsin Human Papillomavirus (HPV) Vaccine Summit.

The event trained approximately 160 health care leaders on ways to improve HPV vaccination rates, and empowered them to provide subsequent training for nurses, medical assistants and other front-line health care providers at their own centers.

The next month, Dr. Conway’s AAP work took him to Capitol Hill, where he advocated for a resolution ensuring that children in poor countries have access to vaccines and immunizations through U.S. support of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation.

Finally, in December 2014, he is traveling to Nepal as part of a partnership between the AAP and the Nepalese Pediatrics Association. He and others will teach health professionals ways to improve the immunization system there and help Nepal become a leader in vaccine policy in South Asia.

For Dr. Conway, all of these efforts fit with his fundamental philosophy of leveraging collaborations to make the biggest possible impact.

“I want to prevent as much as I can and keep children as healthy as I can,” he said. “But you have to work with whatever system you’re in at the time, and you are dependent on your local collaborators.”