Jenna Bush Hager is opening up about her family’s very personal ties to World Polio Day.
On Tuesday, the former first daughter launched a PSA with UNICEF and Rotary International to bring awareness to the event, which aims to eradicate the paralysis-causing disease.
In an exclusive interview with PEOPLE, the NBC News correspondent, 34, speaks about how her husband Henry Hager’s father, John, has lived in a wheelchair because of the disease for 40 years — and why she’s making it her mission to advocate for polio vaccination around the world.
Why did you want to get involved as an ambassador for this year’s World Polio Day PSA?
I’ve worked with Unicef, now sort of a long time ago in 2006, in Latin America, so I saw every day what they do in the field to save kids’ lives. And second of all, this is personal for me: My father-in-law, my husband’s dad, John Hager, has lived with polio for the last four decades. He’s been in a wheelchair for over 40 years. It’s strong, and like so many that face obstacles in their daily life, he’s overcome it in many ways. But at the same time, I’ve seen firsthand the devastating effects it has not only on the person but their families. And I just don’t want any child to face what he’s faced. So I’m really happy to be a part of this because now that I look at my little girls, everything is more meaningful — but I just can’t even imagine being a mom, hearing the news that your child is going to be living the devastating effects of polio.
What can regular people do to get involved?
Get educated. I know about polio because of my father-in-law, but since 1988, the number of polio cases has been reduced by 99 percent. I know so much about it, yet I didn’t necessarily know how close we are to eradicating it and just how important it is to really advocate to vaccinate your kids, to get the polio vaccine into areas everywhere. Obviously we do that here in the United States, but we also need to worry about the world’s most vulnerable children. Of course, my kids got vaccinated — I took them to the doctor when they were babies. I just took Poppy — she’s only 1 — so she just had her vaccine, but it’s important that all kids have that opportunity. For some people who don’t have access to medication, I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a mom in some of these [Third World] countries. It’s really important that we educate, as moms, the importance of vaccinations. With this vaccine, we can eradicate polio! Kids under 5 need to get the vaccine. There’s no cure, but with the vaccine, we can stop this disease.
What would you say to people who don’t necessarily believe in vaccination?
I think that we live in a country where that can be a debate, which is terrific. But in a lot of countries, I don’t think mothers would be debating that. I think if they knew their kids could have the same things that we have, as far as medical care…Obviously we’re not perfect either, but if they knew that they could have something that would help their child not be paralyzed…Polio can lead to paralysis, a lifetime disability that can be shattering for an entire family. If they knew they had the choice to vaccinate their kids, if they had that opportunity to get that vaccine, I’m pretty sure that in the world’s most vulnerable places, these moms wouldn’t even think twice.
I think if you talk to somebody like my father-in-law, who’s lived in a wheelchair for over four decades: He was told he would not have another child, and then my husband was born. Again, I like that we live in a country where we can speak freely about those things, but I’m pretty sure he would have an opinion on how important vaccines are.
What have you learned from your father-in-law’s and your own family’s life with this, especially since becoming a mother yourself — how has that informed your parenting?
He’s just an unbelievable man, like a lot of people I’ve met who have faced disabilities: He just wouldn’t take no for an answer. One of the doctors told him he needed to take a nap every single day, and he’s never taken a nap again—and I love a nap! (laughs) He has, in the most unbelievable way, fought through this, and he’s completed over 20 wheelchair marathons back in the day; he’s now 80, so he should slow down, although I don’t think he’s going to.
He was the first lieutenant governor ever to be in a wheelchair. And this was at a time when he first found out that he had polio: He was told that he would no longer have his job because they could not have a vice president in a wheelchair. This was at a time in the ’70s, before the American Disability Act had been passed, so there weren’t laws that protected him. But he went on to work his way back up. And I just think, as far as resilience goes, he’s full of it. And it does teach me the importance of taking advantage of every single day. We can get a caught up in the least important of things, but what’s most importance is that our kids are happy and healthy. Because we go home to Richmond, where he lives, and see the difficulties that he faces, as long as our kids are happy and healthy, Henry and I are really happy.