04 May 2012

Bill Foege, Leader of Smallpox Eradication, Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom

This originally appears on the PSI Healthy Lives blog.

This past week, Dr. William "Bill" Foege was awarded the prestigious Presidential Medal of Freedom an impressive individual feat and a victory for global health as a whole.

Foege told the UW Public Health blog, "It came as a complete surprise. It's one of those things you don't think about. The personal embarrassment is balanced by the attention that it gives to global health. Global health when I was in school was not something that was talked about at all."

Tom Paulso also interviewed Foege for KPLU's Humanosphere blog. In his accompanying blog post, he calls Foege the most influential person in global health.
This may sound like a personal opinion but it is, in fact, an informed, journalistic and observational if slightly gestalt statement of reality … insofar as I can tell.

I’ve covered global health as a journalist now for as long as it’s been a popular phrase and I would argue — with anyone, Bill Gates, Bono or Jimmy Carter if need be — that Bill Foege is probably the single most important person in global health.

The reason he has been so influential is the same reason so many people don’t seem to know who he is.
You are forgiven if you have never heard of Bill Foege you are excused. I was not aware of Foege until Paulson wrote a short blog post about him this past fall. However, you may have heard of this disease called smallpox. The infectious disease is just a few thousand years old and wrecked havoc across Europe in the 18th Century and killed an estimated 300 million people in the 20th century.

That ended in 1979. That year the WHO certified the first eradication of an infectious disease. Millions of lives have been saved by this effort. Though many contributed to the effort of eradication, Foege is unquestionably one of the most important figures. His strategy for eradication has informed present vaccination campaigns that have brought the world to the brink of eradicating polio.

Since then, Foege has taken the helm of both the CDC and the Carter Center and, until this past January, a senior fellow at the Gates Foundation.

From the Gates Foundation Impatient Optimists blog interviewed Foege after the award was announced.
Q: What lessons from small pox eradication apply today?

The good things that happen in health simply don’t happen by chance. It requires someone with a vision saying this is what we would like to do, lots of people buying in to that objective, and then figuring out how to develop and execute a strategy.

You need unwarranted optimism. You need to keep trying to figure out what is the ultimate barrier to having something happen. Until you get to that ultimate barrier, you don’t know what it would take to finish off a disease.

Q: The world is launching an emergency action plan to end polio. What is the biggest barrier?

I think it’s a great strategy to make this an emergency. It changes the kind of resources that are available. What we need is a realistic understanding of what the problems are right now.

An emergency situation provides some ability to change what you can do in conflict areas. It’s no surprise that Pakistan and Afghanistan are problems. Conflict is really our biggest barrier at the moment. If we didn’t have conflict, you could go in these areas and apply your science in a way that would actually work.
Congratulations to Dr Bill Foege for all of his accomplishments and the well deserved award.