Shot in the arm

“'My mother, I remember—one of her admonitions was the only unforgivable sin is the sin of omission, so I always felt like omitting to take advantage of opportunities was akin to a sin.'”

Nevada Assemblymember Sheila Leslie used these words by former first lady of Arkansas Betty Bumpers to introduce the focus of the joint work by Bumpers and former U.S. first lady Rosalynn Carter to increase childhood immunizations in the United States.

The two women spoke to more than 100 people at the Washoe County Democratic Women’s Club in Sparks last Thursday.

Carter and Bumpers came to Nevada to address the first Nevada Immunization Conference, held later the same day. When Sen. Harry Reid learned of the Democratic first ladies’ visit to the Truckee Meadows, he asked them add to their trip a visit with the Democratic women’s club of Washoe County.

For Carter, not only was it her first time returning to Northern Nevada since her husband’s campaign stop here in the mid-'70s, but she also told the Democratic Women’s Club on Thursday that it was her first speech and attendance at a political event (other than conventions) since 1981. Carter focused her talk on the work by Bumpers and herself to increase early childhood vaccinations in the United States on the advances in health worldwide by the Carters through the work of the Carter Center.

“When Jimmy was elected president, 11 states required immunization … only 11 states,” Carter said. “With Betty’s leadership, we were able to get immunization by school age all across the United States.”

Nevada currently ranks last of all 50 states in immunizing children. Bumpers said that state rates of immunizing children rise or fall as money and interest in the health situation wax and wane.

“The Centers for Disease Control,” Carter said, “has said that immunization of school-age children is one of the greatest health achievements of the 20th century. We’re proud of that.”

Carter also spoke with pride of the Carter Center’s work on global health problems. As an example, she cited a lack of latrines as a major cause of disease in some African countries such as the Sudan.

“We just teach them how to do things,” Carter said. “Last year they built 85,000 latrines. … It’s totally changed the village. They don’t have to defecate all over the ground anymore. They can clean the village up.”

Speaking publicly about such subjects can be a delicate matter, which the former first lady handled with humor in her soft, Georgia accent. She said that one of the locals taught by the Carters to build latrines said of Jimmy, “The president of the United States is the largest builder of latrines in the world.”

Rosalynn Carter ended her talk by introducing Bumpers and said Bumpers will be inducted in a few weeks into the National Women’s Hall of Fame for her good works.

Bumpers started working on childhood immunizations in her home state of Arkansas in 1973 as first lady of the state. In 1991, she joined with Rosalynn Carter to begin the Every Child By Two program which has helped lead to a national average of 80 percent immunization of children.

Bumpers spoke about the power and responsibility of women to change what she called “the entropy of the nation.”

“I’m convinced that there’s never going to be any exit out of this,” Bumpers said, “until women get their rights throughout the world … because we as women are so concerned about the futures [of] good health for ourselves and our children and our families, good education, good futures for careers and everything that we do.”

She ended her talk with a call to action, perhaps inspired by her mother’s words to her as she was growing up, perhaps hoping to inspire the Democratic women attending Thursday’s talk to avoid those sins of omission.

“Most people think that everything happens at the state capital or at the national capital,” Bumpers said. “I can tell you because I’ve been sitting both places for 30 years: Nothing really happens in either place.”

Pausing for the sympathetic laughter from the women assembled, Bumpers continued, “It is reflected from the grass roots. … And then it is reflected by your elected officials in the state’s capital and in the nation’s capital. So keep that in mind. And you have a grave responsibility to be participating.”