UNICEF’s Joseph Hing and Rebecca Olul demonstrate a drone to children in the remote village of Epi in Vanuatu, a nation spread out across 83 volcanic islands.

UNICEF’s Joseph Hing and Rebecca Olul demonstrate a drone to children in the remote village of Epi in Vanuatu, a nation spread out across 83 volcanic islands.

Medicine From The Sky

How do you deliver vaccines to remote areas where there are no roads? Sheldon Yett ’86 is trying out one idea.

By Romel Hernandez | March 7, 2019

As UNICEF’s representative in the Pacific Islands, Sheldon Yett manages mind-boggling work travel as part of his daily duties. His vast territory encompasses 10.7 million square miles of ocean (nearly three times the size of the United States), including 14 sovereign nations, each with its own distinct culture and history, spread across hundreds of tropical islands and atolls.

However, the figure that matters most to him is 1.2 million—the number of children under 18 in the region, many of them struggling with poverty and its attendant woes. UNICEF partners with governments to support children’s health, education, and welfare, as well as providing emergency relief in a part of the globe frequently buffeted by cyclones and earthquakes.

Much of his work involves figuring out how to deliver aid wherever it is needed, no matter how remote. Based in Fiji, he has braved jeep rides over rugged mountain terrain, tiny turboprop-plane flights through squally weather, and “banana boat” rides on choppy seas.

“These vast distances make getting ‘here to there’ extremely difficult and expensive,” he says. “Often the challenge is how to get those vaccines and medicines that extra mile.”

His work recently made news headlines when UNICEF partnered with the government of Vanuatu on an innovative solution to going that extra distance. Vanuatu is a nation spread across 83 volcanic islands, where about 20% of its 35,000 children under age 5 are not getting recommended vaccinations. Among the leading causes of deaths of young children in the region are diarrhea and pneumonia—diseases preventable through basic health care.

While Westerners might romanticize the South Pacific as a tropical paradise, he notes, “If you’re the mother of a child who needs a vaccine, you’re not thinking about beautiful beaches.”

Last year UNICEF coordinated a trial program to deploy drones to transport vaccines to remote parts of Vanuatu. Carrying vaccines for up to 50 children, the drones make the deliveries to health centers deep in the mountains and jungles quicker, safer, and cheaper. 

“It’s been very successful,” he says, noting that UNICEF plans to expand the effort. 

The liberal arts education he got at Reed prepared him for the challenges of a career that has taken him to hot spots across the globe. His college experiences helped hone his ability to adapt to change and new environments, to come up with novel approaches to entrenched problems, and to dedicate himself to helping others in need.

The 14 countries in UNICEF’s Pacific region are remarkably diverse, each with its own challenges. Some, such as the Cook Islands, are relatively strong and stable with a strong GDP, while others, such as the Solomon Islands, are struggling. The area is also critically vulnerable to the impacts of climate change—natural disasters, changes to farming and fishing.

Because UNICEF depends on strong partnerships with individual governments and nongovernmental organizations, he has to be nimble, resourceful, and pragmatic in his approach.

“It’s quite a complex mix—you have to understand the drivers of social change, where the tensions are, who’s in charge,” he says. “You learn the most important thing to do is to listen.”

Sheldon was born in Brooklyn, New York, and raised by parents who served as diplomats overseas (his father worked for the U.S. Information Agency, his mother for the State Department). He attended elementary school in the former Yugoslavia and high school in Kenya.

He chose Reed because it seemed different from other small liberal arts colleges.

“Reed taught me to question, to challenge,” he says. “I learned how to drill down to fundamental issues, how to think things through and find connections that might not be obvious.”

With sights set on his future career, he majored in international relations because the interdisciplinary blend of political science, sociology, and economics appealed to his wide-ranging sensibility. Prof. Ed Segel [history 1973–2011] oversaw his thesis on international food aid and foreign policy. Prof. Segel pointed him towards the Peace Corps, where he spent two years in Niger. After returning to the States, he earned a master’s degree from Johns Hopkins.

Over the course of his career, he has found himself posted in the middle of major international conflicts and crises in Africa and Eastern Europe. He has provided food aid in violence-ravaged Rwanda, responded to the Ebola virus epidemic in Liberia, and raised awareness about child abuse in Macedonia.  While in Somalia in 2001 to coordinate efforts amid a cholera outbreak, he was kidnapped by militia and briefly held hostage before negotiations secured his release.

Sheldon has worked with UNICEF since 1996. He moved from Liberia when he was tapped to lead the organization in the Pacific (while also raising two daughters with his wife, Sharon).

“Here I don’t have to worry about warlords,” he says. “I worry about volcanoes and cyclones.”

He expects to stay in Fiji until 2020; his next stop is anybody’s guess. “I can’t imagine staying in one place forever,” he says. “I enjoy the challenge of going from Country A to Country B.”

Tags: Alumni, Health/Wellness