Isabeli Fontana’s famous face has graced fashion and beauty campaigns ranging from Victoria’s Secret to L’Oréal but she’s also the face of the cause she says matters to her the most: polio vaccination.
A longer version of this interview by Esha Chhabra was published here by Take Part.
The supermodel was tapped by Rotary International two years ago to become an ambassador for the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and traveled to India this past spring to see the program in action. Rotary also held its annual convention in São Paulo last month, where Fontana was a keynote speaker on the issue. For Fontana, her goal as ambassador is to get more deeply involved in the campaign and use her family as an example for others to follow.
So, Why Should You Care?
India became polio-free in 2014 after battling the disease for nearly 30 years, but the campaign continues in order to ensure that no new cases emerge. India has been used as an example from which to draw lessons for other nations that are still battling the virus. These include India’s neighbors Pakistan and Afghanistan – the two remaining polio-endemic nations in the world. Nigeria, a third nation on the list, just completed one year without any new cases.
Below, Fontana and Esha discuss the global effort to end polio everywhere for good.
TakePart: How much did you know about Rotary and polio before you joined the campaign?
Isabeli Fontana: My knowledge of Rotary was limited to the service clubs. At the time I was unaware of the size and ramifications of the organization. The same goes for polio. I knew about the importance of vaccination. I had supported national campaigns before, and my kids had been vaccinated according to the health department suggestions, but I had no idea about the endemic countries, how vulnerable so many kids are, that eradication was possible, or even the amount of work involved in monitoring cases around the world. I am a very hands-on person, and as you get involved you learn from everybody. The trip to India was, without a doubt, an immersion in the subject.
TakePart: During your visit to India, what did you learn about global health?
Fontana: The key lesson for me was that you need a lot of willpower and great coordination of skills to have the best outcome for all people involved. Polio eradication in India was a community effort where many participants with different roles were crucial to the final outcome. I learned that every single person must participate. We are all responsible, and we can feel empowered because of that. I also met with WHO and UNICEF and learned that the operation required as much scientific knowledge as cultural—and great expertise of human behavior. Then, I met with many Rotarians who had made it their goal in life to eradicate this disease. They went beyond just financing the eradication efforts and raising awareness about the disease. Those volunteers take the fight personally and are everywhere. It’s also impressive that they’ve kept the focus on eradication for so many years, to the point that we now talk about a 99.9 percent reduction of polio since the Global Polio Eradication Initiative launched [in 1998].
TakePart: Any individuals you’ll never forget meeting in India?
Fontana: I was in awe of the many women health workers I met. They work hard under harsh weather to make sure kids are vaccinated, [even] in areas of difficult access. It was also a very emotional moment to visit the polio ward at St. Stephen’s Hospital. I saw young adults undergoing treatment [corrective surgery and physical therapy]. Every single one of those faces is in my memory, representing the warriors they are. But also, all that suffering could have been avoided with the vaccine.
TakePart: You had your child immunized in Brazil to show support for the polio campaign. Have you found that people in Brazil are generally accepting of immunizations and getting their children vaccinated, whether for polio or otherwise?
Fontana: The government vaccination program is very strong in Brazil, covering the whole country. But like what has happened recently in the U.S., the idea that vaccines are not necessary or are even harmful is spreading on social media and blogs in Brazil as well. We also recently had a measles outbreak. It could be an indication that some parents are not following the immunization schedule suggested by doctors. This makes the awareness about polio eradication and concepts like “herd immunity” even more important.
TakePart: Did you see any similarities between health programs in Brazil and in India?
Fontana: I learned that many lessons of the health program in Brazil have been used to inspire the successful eradication program in India. There are indeed many similarities, such as the constant vaccination drives. But I also learned that both countries are experiencing a very different moment in polio eradication: India was certified polio-free very recently, and Brazil started a new phase in the process of global eradication where the injectable vaccine is now included in the protocol of vaccination. Before that, only the drops were given to children in Brazil.
TakePart: What more do you hope to do in the future?
Fontana: I came back from India very energized. My main focus now is to go where people are working hard to eliminate the last cases of polio. I also have many friends, including those at Brazilian fashion houses [Tufi Duek, Morena Rosa, and Sophia Hegg] who have become interested in the cause, so we will soon have more activities with them to raise funds.
TakePart: How important do you feel it is for celebrities like yourself to volunteer for such international organizations and causes?
Fontana: Thanks to the exposure that is a part of my profession, I have become a role model to many people. I am very conscious of that. I feel it is my duty to actually redirect this attention to causes that will make this world better to all. This is a personal decision. But this is an option available to all celebrities.