Bill Foege


The Man Who Beat Smallpox: on global health, Gates, and why poverty is slavery | 

foegeBill Foege is the man.

You wouldn’t know it though, because he’s one of the most self-effacing guys you could meet. Try to compliment him on his singular achievements in global health, and he expertly deflects it. But behind the facade of a humble, ho-hum doctor, he’s really a social justice radical (he calls poverty the modern-day version of slavery). That’s what Tom Paulson thinks, anyway. By the end of the podcast, you’ll probably agree.

What’s indisputable is that Foege has had a massive global impact. He directed the Centers for Disease Control during the Carter and Reagan administrations. When Bill Gates created his foundation to fight poverty and disease, he turned to Foege for advice. And last year, Foege was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama for his leading role in eradicating smallpox, the only human disease to be eliminated.

What does global health mean and how has it changed? Has the Gates Foundation lost its way? And how did being really, really tall help him fight smallpox in Nigeria? We ask Foege all this and more, and boy, does he have some stories to tell. If you want to fight poverty and disease, and actually succeed, you owe it yourself to listen to this special extended conversation.

Plus, we welcome the other Tom, Tom Murphy (our East Coast correspondent), to the podcast for the first time to discuss the headlines, including the Syrian refugee crisis and what the next generation of the Millennium Development Goals should look like. Tune in below.

And don’t miss a single Humanosphere podcast – we’re now on iTunes! Check it out and subscribe.

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The most influential person in global health | 

Tom Paulson

Bill Foege in the hills near his boyhood home of Colville, Washington

Is Bill Foege.

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 — or if you do know of him, how to pronounce his name.

It’s Fay-Ghee. Not Fogey. Or Foje.

You should know his name because he’s the guy who figured out the strategy that rid the world of smallpox — so far the only human disease ever eradicated. Foege is credited by Bill and Melinda Gates for helping craft their global health mission — a mission that now, arguably, sets the agenda for international health.

He was the head of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, appointed by President Jimmy Carter and stayed on for the first part of the Reagan Administration when the AIDS epidemic first emerged. His career in global health started half a century ago, when he and his wife Paula moved to Nigeria where he worked as a medical missionary.

Tom Paulson

Bill and Paula Foege's home in eastern Nigeria

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How Jimmy Carter became a serpent slayer and global health pioneer | 

Tom Paulson

President Jimmy Carter speaks at World Affairs Council 60th Anniversary event

Former President Jimmy Carter is in Seattle, having spoken last night at the World Affairs Council’s 60th anniversary celebration and speaking today at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation about Guinea worm.

Mike Urban,

A Nigerian woman with Guinea Worm

Guinea worm is a human parasite that eats its way through the human body and emerges a year later, incapacitating people with the pain of completing its life cycle. It’s horrible.

I’ve seen people with Guinea worm in Africa. Over the years, I’ve also seen what Jimmy Carter and his team at the Carter Center have done to come close now to completely ridding the world of this horrific disease.

It’s a great story, and perhaps of much broader significance to global health than many might realize.

Earlier this week, the Gates Foundation, major pharmaceutical companies and others announced a major $$785 million push against “neglected tropical diseases.” This was celebrated by Bill Gates, World Health Organization chief Margaret Chan and others as a critical turning point in global health. The Carter Center got some of the loot, $40 million of it, to finish off Guinea worm.

But in one sense, this push against neglected diseases got a good first shove nearly 30 years ago by Jimmy Carter. One look at the Carter Center’s website shows they got to this point, of recognizing the need to fight neglected diseases, decades ago.

Diseases like river blindness, Guinea worm, parasitic (lymphatic) elephantiasis and schistosomiasis have been in Carter’s cross hairs since the mid-1980s. Continue reading

After 9/11: How the global humanitarian agenda was changed, or not | 

Flickr, Dimitra Tzanos

Today is the tenth anniversary of the day after 9/11.

We’ve seen a torrent of amazing, compelling and painful stories of the terrorist attack over the past week or so. The narrative of that tragic event has become a touchstone for many of us, a way of explaining our sense of ourselves and of why we do what we do — here and overseas.

I’m interested in what has happened since.

Specifically, I wondered what has happened to our sense of ourselves as global citizens and how Sept. 11, 2001, may have altered matters of global health, foreign aid, development — basically, the global humanitarian agenda.

The short answer: It’s a mixed bag of good and bad, some clear signs of what many see as progress but also some disturbing lessons not learned.

Nearly 3,000 Americans died on Sept. 11, 2001. The world, for a while, rallied around us — including, it should be emphasized, many groups like the Muslim Brotherhood we nevertheless continue to eye with suspicion — as nearly everyone condemned this stunning crime against humanity.

We went to war, in Afghanistan and then Iraq (which turned out to have little to do with the attack or al-Qaeda).

U.S. Army

U.S. Army in Afghanistan

As the New York Times noted in its extensive special anniversary report The Reckoning, the largely military and national security response to this act of terrorism has so far cost us $3.3 trillion — not to mention the cost of lives of some 6,000 American soldiers and at least 100,000 Iraqi citizens.

It’s hard to imagine not retaliating to such an assault, but as The Economist noted, “America has precious little to show for this sacrifice apart from the disruption of al-Qaeda.” The editors add that Osama bin Laden, were he alive, “would have cause to feel satisfied” at the toll the attack has taken on the U.S. … and then suggests, unhelpfully perhaps, that we still need to keep our guard up.

So where are we with the global humanitarian agenda? Continue reading

Which four diseases face total eradication? Bill Foege predicts extension of smallpox success | 

by Tom Paulson

Bill Foege

Smallpox was, until today, the only disease that had ever been eradicated from the planet.

The United Nations today declared that rinderpest, a cattle disease that when prevalent had profound adverse impact on humanity, is now the second disease to have been eradicated.

Bill Foege, one of our local boys made good, is a big fan of disease eradication.

Foege is the world-renowned physician who figured out the strategy that succeeded in wiping out smallpox. He is featured in an interview on disease eradication on PRI’s The World today “How to Kill a KIller Disease.”

Here’s a story I did almost a year ago about Foege on the 30th anniversary of the eradication of smallpox. You may notice that PRI used the same photo — a photo I took of Bill in Colville, Eastern Washington, where he grew up.

Foege, a former chief of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and now a senior adviser to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, has written a fascinating book on the global campaign to eradicate smallpox called “House on Fire.” On PRI, he predicted that four more diseases will be eradicated soon.

“I think maybe six diseases will be eradicated before I die,” said Foege, listing the next four as polio, guinea worm, measles and onchocerciasis (river blindness). What about malaria?

“Malaria may take a little longer … but we need to try to eradicate malaria and I’m very optimistic about it,” he said.

Gates Foundation’s new digs soon to officially open | 

The Seattle Times, and reporter Kristi Heim, on Sunday published a big spread on the new headquarters of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation set to officially open in early June.

As is often the case in restaurants, where the appetizers are better than the main entrees, I think the most interesting story in this package is the sidebar with the terribly dull headline Bill and Melinda Gates: Adjoining offices, contrasting styles.

“We’re constantly in learning mode, but learning from different directions and nudging each other,” Melinda Gates said. She explained that she works from observing what people need and then goes to the statistics while her husband prefers to start with statistics and then move to examining the human factors.

I got a sneak peak at this spectacular campus in April when I attended an event at which Bill and Melinda Gates honored two other Bills — Bill Foege and Bill Gates Sr – for their guidance in making the philanthropy what it is today. Here’s a photo of Bill Gates and Foege in the main commons room:

Tom Paulson

Bill Gates and Bill Foege, at new campus

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Global public health champion dies | 


David Sencer

David Sencer, the longest-serving director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and one of the leaders of the U.S. contribution to the smallpox campaign, died Monday at age 86.

The New York Times quoted Bill Foege, Sencer’s friend and successor as CDC chief, now a senior adviser to the Gates Foundation:

“He said you couldn’t protect U.S. citizens from smallpox without getting rid of it in the world, and that was a new approach,” said Foege, who helped lead the smallpox effort in the field and developed the eradication strategy. “People in the field got all the praise, but he was the unsung hero.”

As a journalist who has covered public health issues for decades, I had many occasions to talk with Dave. He was not always well treated by the media and, in my opinion, was blamed for some public health mishaps he could not have anticipated or controlled. Continue reading

Seattle still wants to save the world | 

As regular readers know, the title of last week’s “Can Seattle Save the World? (Poverty, Health and Chocolate)” was tongue-firmly-in-cheek, but also meant to raise some important questions. There’s a serious debate about the meaning and priority of “health” in “global health.”

"Can Seattle Save the World?" panel at Town Hall Seattle

Justin Steyer/KPLU

"Can Seattle Save the World?" panel at Town Hall Seattle, featuring Tom Paulson, Bill Foege, Chris Elias, Wendy Johnson, and Joe Whinney

The event itself proved so popular that we moved it to a room three times larger than originally planned — and nearly packed the room. Not to toot our horn too much, but immediate feedback was enthusiastic. “Do it again,” was the most common response.

We’d love to.

In the meantime, we are belatedly offering a replay. Seattle’s municipal cable TV station recorded the event, and edited it for local broadcast on May 5th at 2pm. It’s now also viewable at the Seattle Channel website and embedded below.

We have a few photos of our panelists (alas, none yet of the magnificent domed room or of the audience — if you have your own photos, please share) at our Flickr site.

There’s a lot of interest in continuing the discussion. Some provocative audience questions included: How can the development community start talking about projects that are not working — without jeopardizing funding for the good projects? What sort of careers are there, or should there be, for the hundreds of college students now majoring in Global Health?

A comment and question stream has started at this earlier post (as well as on Twitter at #SEAsaves).