From smallpox victim to polio eradication advocate | 

Ali Maow Maalin
Ali Maow Maalin

Ali Maow Maalin of Somalia died suddenly at the age of 59 last week. He was the last person infected with smallpox in the world.

What he did with his life after the infection is what makes Maalin’s story truly remarkable. He took his experience and set his sights on eradicating polio.

Maalin refused the smallpox vaccine when he was younger because he feared needles. Refusing the vaccine is why he contracted smallpox while driving to a clinic with an infected family. He explained to the Boston Globe’s John Donnelly in 2006:

”I was scared of being vaccinated then. It looked like the shot hurt,” said Mo’allim, 48, who was sick for 50 days with smallpox but recovered completely. ”Now when I meet parents who refuse to give their children the polio vaccine, I tell them my story. I tell them how important these vaccines are. I tell them not to do something foolish like me.”

“He would always say, ‘I’m the last smallpox case in the world. I want to help ensure my country will not be last in stopping polio,’ ” Dr. Debesay Mulugeta, who leads polio eradication efforts in Somalia, said the the NPR Shots Blog.
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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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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.

World Health Assembly opens to Taiwan outrage, smallpox debate, speeches by Bill Gates and Muhammad Yunus’ arch-enemy | 


World Health Organization

The World Health Assembly opens today in Geneva for week-long confab on what to do about global health.

I’ve not attended one of these meetings, which sets priorities for the World Health Organization, but from a distance it always looks like kind of a mess. A well-intentioned mess maybe but a mess nonetheless, partly because almost everything under the sun is allowed a place on the agenda. Continue reading

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

How We Got Rid of Smallpox, Why It Matters | 

Ghanaian Boy with Smallpox


Ghanaian Boy with Smallpox

This was a horrible, terrifying disease.


It’s hard for many of us to appreciate now what an awful scourge this viral infection once was, in the mid-1960s still causing 15 million cases a year and killing nearly as many as AIDS today.

And now it’s gone, eradicated. The only disease, so far, wiped off the face of the planet.

Some of those who helped rid the world of this disease are meeting in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this week. The Smallpox 2010 conference is being held to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the official declaration that “smallpox is dead” — and to apply what was learned to assist other efforts aimed at eradicating diseases like polio, measles and even perhaps malaria.

Some say it was the global campaign to eradicate smallpox that paved the way for today’s concept of global health.

One of those attending the Rio meeting is Dr. Bill Foege, who I can say (because he won’t) was the guy who figured out how to finally beat smallpox.

Foege, who grew up in Colville, went to Pacific Lutheran University and then to the University of Washington to become a doctor, arguably came up with the strategy that turned the tide in the smallpox campaign. Continue reading