Bill Foege might not be as recognizable a name as Bill Gates or Bill Clinton, but in our opinion, it should be. He’s the man credited for eradicating smallpox, a public health legend, and -– as of last week –- a winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Photo courtesy of Tom Paulson, Humanosphere.org
To a development nerd like me, smallpox eradication is one of our most exciting success stories. (And others share the opinion: check out the Impatient Optimists’ “Vaccinators are the Real Heroes” blog post from earlier this week.) Though you might think of it as a medieval disease –- it’s more than 3,000 years old, after all -– smallpox actually devastated communities as recently as the 1960s. In 1967, 60 percent of the world’s population was still at risk and the disease killed every fourth victim. At that point we’d had a vaccine against smallpox for more than 150 years, but the public health community thought they would need to vaccinate upwards of 80 percent of the world’s population to fully eradicate it –- an almost impossible task.
When the WHO decided to redouble efforts to fight the disease in 1967, they called on Foege, a trained physician and epidemiologist working as a Lutheran missionary doctor in Nigeria, to help. Drawing on both his formal training and his experience fighting forest fires in the Pacific Northwest as a college student, he realized that they might not need to vaccinate everyone, just the right people. (You can read about it in his recent book, “House on Fire: The Fight to Eradicate Smallpox.”)
He found that through careful tracking and anticipatory vaccination (determining where the disease was likely to spread and vaccinating there first), you could curb the epidemic by immunizing as little as 7 percent of the population. He tested this hypothesis first in Nigeria, then worked to roll it out in other affected countries. It worked, and the WHO certified the eradication of smallpox in 1979, just over a decade later.
As the President knows, it’s important to laud Foege not only for the number of lives his work has saved, but also for the way he did it. He took a seemingly intractable problem and applied new thinking. Who would have thought that forest fire and disease prevention would benefit from the same strategy?
And Foege didn’t stop there -– he kept it up post-smallpox eradication by focusing his talents on increasing immunization rates in the developing world, helping the Gates Foundation define its global health strategy, and contributing hugely to the fight against Guinea worm disease, polio, river blindness, and measles with the Carter Center.
It’s this kind of innovation that inspires all of us here at ONE, and it’s this kind of innovation that’s going to help us keep up the progress Dr. Foege helped start. So today, join us in congratulating Dr. Foege on yet another big win by leaving a message in the comments section below.
Want to do more in the fight against preventable diseases? Join USAID’s campaign to raise awareness for childhood immunization here.