'Missed Connections' Illustrator Uses Pen to Fight Global Measles Epidemic

By Amy Zimmer on September 21, 2012 8:08am 

MANHATTAN — Sophie Blackall, a Brooklyn-based Australian artist who has illustrated more than 20 books for children, also drew the “Missed Connections” posters that can be seen by millions of riders in subway cars across the city.

She will be one of a smattering of celebrities, journalists, world leaders, CEO’s and others discussing how social media can be used for social good at the 92Y’s third annual Social Good Summit from Sept. 22 – 24.

But Blackall, who landed the MTA Arts for Transit poster gig after her book,  “Missed Connections: Love, Lost & Found,” came out in 2011, will not be talking about the work she does based on the anonymous Craigslist messages posted by lovestruck straphangers.

Instead, she’ll be presenting an exhibition of new artwork inspired by her recent trip to the Democratic Republic of Congo where she learned firsthand about the devastating consequences of measles as part of part of the “Measles Initiative” run by the Red Cross, UNICEF and others that provides vaccinations to children around the world.

“In some parts of Africa, families don’t name their children until the threat of measles has past,” Blackall said.

She visited villages, for instance, where families would wait for an epidemic to pass through before giving an official name to a child.

“Until that point, they give children endearments, like “Well Birth’ or ‘Treasure,’” she explained.

She will be discussing her exhibit, “Let Every Child Have a Name: The Road to a World Without Measles,” on Saturday at a 3:15 p.m. panel for the summit. She will also be showing the work from the Measles Initiative on Sunday at the 92Y’s Street Fest.

“These vaccination campaigns are incredibly effective,” Blackall said. “It costs $1 a child and they’re vaccinated for life. The threat disappears entirely when children are vaccinated.”

Blackall had never been to Africa before the roughly week-long trip she took at the end of April for the campaign, and it all came about through social media, in a way.

One of the campaign organizers living in Thailand saw an Etsy video of Blackall’s work on the MTA “Missed Connections” poster. That woman then contacted a colleague in Zimbabwe about bringing on Blackwell, who received an email about the project as she was sitting on the tarmac in Cincinnati during a snowstorm in February, Blackall recounted.

“It was the most extraordinary thing thinking about this as the plane was being de-iced,” she said.

She visited remote villages up the Congo River, watching health workers as they carefully mapped out communities for the program and joining kids on hours-long lines as they waited for vaccinations.

“It was a fantastic experience, but also heartbreaking to see how many children are dying from preventable diseases,” she said, citing that 380 children around the world die a day from measles.

“I had measles as a kid and didn’t think much of it,” Blackall said. “Because of immunity, in the third world, the condition is fatal and unbelievably contagious.”

She and many more will be joining the likes of actress Maria Bello (also the Goodwill Ambassador for Women in Haiti.), author Deepak Chopra (speaking about spirituality in the digital age) and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (talking about cyber-security) for the summit to be live-streamed in multiple languages.

It’s billed as a sort of complement to UN Week but where everyone gets a seat at the table, organizers said. 

Blackall is already longing to return to Africa, perhaps focusing next on rubella, which is not as fatal as measles, but leaves people blind and deaf. That vaccine, too, costs $1.

“Each village we went to we would be surrounded by children — beautiful and engaging children. I would love to sit in these beautiful villages and draw with these kids,” she said. “I’m scheming to get back. It felt like dipping a toe in the ocean.”

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