Samy Awwad is just 16 but is already wading into the vaccine information wars.

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This high school senior started a nonprofit to promote accurate vaccination information. Getty Images

The surging cases of measles this year has shed light on the fact that there’s a strong, prevalent anti-vaccine community in various parts of this nation.

Their reasons for refusing vaccines vary: Some people’s religious beliefs conflict with vaccines, whereas others have fallen for the false information about vaccine hazards that circulated within their social media channels and tight-knit communities. 

As a result, many kids with vaccine-hesitant parents have gone unvaccinated. 

Now, many people, health officials included, hope to break down the myths holding people and their families back from getting immunized and spread awareness about the truth: that vaccines are a very safe, very effective way to protect ourselves and our communities against preventable diseases. 

People are fighting to educate kids and give them the tools to make their own choices about getting vaccinated — a move health experts across the country support, according to a recent study published in JAMA Pediatrics.

Samy Awwad, a high school senior in Humboldt County, California, is one of those fighters. At just 16 years old, Awwad has launched an organization called IMMUNIGLOBAL in an effort to teach young people about the benefits of vaccines, and, hopefully, lower the rate of communicable diseases such as measles along the way.

Awwad and his team host workshops at K-12 schools in and around his hometown to educate kids about vaccines, hygiene, and herd immunity — that magic preventive barrier that forms against diseases when most of the population is immune. 

We spoke with Samy to hear more about his story, and what he’s working to achieve.

How’d you get the idea for ImmuniGlobal?

It all started last February, when I came across an article in my local newspaper. The article described my county as being right on the brink of a measles outbreak, and after looking more into the issue, I found that my county Humboldt was recently ranked 54 out of 58 counties — so the fourth lowest for vaccination rates in California.

It goes without saying that low vaccination rates would impose a serious risk for my community, so I knew I had to spring into action somehow. And that’s where it all began. 

How’d you get it started?

From there, I spent a few weeks to a couple months contacting some local organizations, including my county’s department of public health. But, before I could actually get the infrastructure to [host] physical workshops, I decided to construct a website from scratch to serve as sort of an educational hub for immunization content. 

The initial goal of ImmuniGlobal was completely online and through our website to fill in the scantiness of reliable info regarding vaccines and immunization. I guess since those few months, we’ve grown pretty considerably and enough for it to serve as more of a grassroots movement. 

What do you hope to achieve with ImmuniGlobal?

We want to transcend forced legislation and rules and actually formulate more of a sustainable means of maintaining adequate vaccination rates both in our local area and abroad. 

People find loopholes, so why block anti-vaxxers with new rules if you can just educate them on the spot. So our mission is to sort of corroborate and spread the word that vaccines truly work and they undoubtedly save lives.

Part of that is reinterpreting the information we see on the media today. You know, with the appearance of measles in our communities, I think the recent outbreaks should serve as a good wake-up call for the American people not to take herd immunity for granted. 

Really my hope with ImmuniGlobal is to spread the facts and the objectively beneficial nature of getting vaccinated. 

How exactly do you hope to spark this change?

Right before starting workshops, my philosophy was that if we can target at-risk populations that are susceptible to digesting debatable information with foundational education regarding immunization then we can set the stage for children and their parents to get on the route to a healthy, disease-free future. 

When it comes to workshops, in particular, [we’ve] conducted and continue to conduct workshops in K-12 classrooms in Humboldt County to improve public health education.

We’re supported by local educators, clinics, immunization officials, to just really make an impact of the immunization rates. For the workshops, specifically, we’ve partnered with Families Fighting Flu[ which partners] with Clorox, along with other large-scale organizations so we can make sure students are properly educated by backed up facts and tips.

I start off doing side presentations and brief [students] on the issues regarding anti-vaccination. Then, I kind of transition to a physical, hands-on approach and present a lot of hygiene activities. I let them do these [kits] that allow them to look at the germs [they missed] on their hands when they wash their hands. 

How would you sell someone on getting vaccinated?

There are a lot of things, but I think the most important thing … is you’re really not doing it for yourself, but for your brother, your sister, your friends, peers, and really just your community at large.

When you choose to vaccinate, you’re contributing to herd immunity. When that [herd immunity] isn’t met, so many people could be left at serious risk of catching life-threatening diseases like measles, meningitis, tetanus, flu. 

When it comes to getting vaccinated, think about it as that sort of considerate, altruistic sense of responsibility. We should just all feel for each other; it really is a moral duty to help others by contributing to herd immunity — we’re doing it for the cancer patients, the infants, everyone with medical conditions surrendering them completely immunosuppressed. 

What’s up next for you?

As for future plans, I’m pretty set on a future in medicine — like, the prospects of curing notorious diseases like brain diseases — higher than ever. I’d just like to be a part of that, either as a physician or by founding a startup in the future.

A lot of people say the sacrifice isn’t worth it — spending so much time in school — but I think when it comes to saving lives, it’s something that kind of has to be [done].