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Our own local global hero — Bill Foege — says poverty is the ‘single biggest problem’ in global public health

By Maria Saporta

Finally Bill Foege is getting his due.

Foege, who may have saved more lives than any other person on earth, recently was honored with Georgia Tech’s 2012 Ivan Allen Jr. Prize for Social Courage.

But for most Atlantans, Foege is an unknown hero.

Few realize he has been director of the CDC, executive director of the Carter Center, senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and co-founder of the Task Force for Global Health.

Even fewer realize that Foege is credited for heading the international effort that eradicated smallpox — “the first and only disease that’s been eradicated from the face of the earth,” according to Mark Rosenberg, president and CEO of the Decatur-based Task Force for Global Health.

Foege has written about his experience with smallpox eradication in a book that was published last year: “House on Fire.” In the book, he explained the then-novel approach of “surveillance and containment.” Instead of immunizing everyone, the plan was to immunize people where there had been outbreaks.

Bill Foege

At the beginning of the book, Foege wrote: “If a house is on fire, no one wastes time putting water on nearby houses just in case the fire spreads. They rush to pour water where it will do the most good — on the burning house. The same strategy turned out to be effective in eradicating smallpox.”

To find out more about Foege, go to www.scienceheroes.com. You will see that hero No. 1 is Foege. The website gives Foege credit for having saved the lives of 122 million people around the world.

It is amazing that Foege, who has spent most of his career in Atlanta, has been able to operate under the radar without becoming a household name and local hero until now.

“There’s something Bill calls ‘ego suppression,’” Rosenberg told a recent gathering at Georgia Tech on “Global Health and the Challenge of Hope.”

In short, Foege has been quick to give credit that ordinarily would shine on him to others. Rosenberg recounted a story when Foege was in India helping fight the last cases of smallpox. He called his boss at CDC, Dave Sencer, and said he was coming home.

“No, you’re not,” Sencer told Foege. “In a few months, you will have eradicated the last remaining cases of smallpox, the holy grail of global health.”

In response, Foege insisted he was coming back to Atlanta telling Sencer: “If I’m here, all the credit will go to the foreign people, and this is something that Indian people deserve credit for.”

At Georgia Tech, Foege had to sit through testimonial after testimonial — some live and in person and others by videotape — about how he has helped change the world.

They included: former President Jimmy Carter; James Curran, dean of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health; Dåzon Dixon Diallo, founder and president of SisterLove Inc.; Helene Gayle, president and CEO of CARE USA; Jeffrey Koplan, director of Emory’s Global Health Institute; and David Satcher, former CDC director and U.S. Surgeon General who is now director of the Satcher Health Leadership Institute and director of the Center of Excellence on Health Disparities at the Morehouse School of Medicine.

Carter said in a video that when Foege became director of the Carter Center in 1986, he led the effort to combat guinea worm and river blindness.

Rosenberg described how Foege changed the equation of how the field of global health partnered with big pharmaceutical companies.

Merck realized that the medicine used to combat heartworm disease in dogs could also prevent river blindness. So the company made an offer to Foege in 1987.

“We will give you as much as you need for as long as you need to get rid of river blindness,” Merck told Foege. But when Foege asked his colleagues whether he should accept Merck’s offer, every one told him no. It would destroy the purity of global health efforts if they partnered with big, bad pharma.

Foege, however, followed his heart and said yes. Now more than 800 million doses of the medicine have been given worldwide and “there’s the potential to eliminate river blindness,” Rosenberg said.

(Upon accepting the Ivan Allen Prize, Foege joked: “The dogs of America are underwriting this program.”)

But that’s not all Foege has done. “Bill has focused the world on global health equity,” Rosenberg said. “Global health equity is the moral compass that has guided his career. The world can not be allowed to exist that’s half healthy and that’s half sick.”

Finally it was Foege’s turn to speak.

“This is not a fatalistic world. Small pox did not disappear by chance,” Foege said. “Things do not happen in an arbitrary fashion.”

For Foege, the biggest issue in the world today is poverty and the disparity between the haves and the have nots.

“Small pox was a disease of poverty,” Foege said. “The single biggest problem we have in public health is poverty.”

Foege said that there has been a gap between science and humanity — a gap that he has tried to bridge. He has done that by showcasing the people behind the science — faces of the people who can now live healthier lives because of advances in public health.

“I tell students to love science but don’t worship it,” Foege said. “There’s something better than science, and that is serving humanity.”

Bill Gates Jr. and Bill Gates Sr. have said that Foege “was our teacher” in their understanding in global health. While serving as a senior advisor for the Gates Foundation, Foege has been living in both Seattle and Atlanta. But earlier this year, the Foeges moved back full-time to Atlanta. So his voice and his vision will be readily available.

Some closing thoughts from Foege:

“The health situation in the world is both dire and correctable. It takes hope, courage and tenacity,” Foege said. “What has changed is poverty — the danger of the strong preying on the weak. Poverty is an emergency and should be approached as if you were approaching a drowning person.”

The field of global health also is coming into its own with more and more students entering the field.

“We are getting so many good people wanting to go into public health,” Foege said. “Can we handle all of them? Of course we can. The problems are so great.”

Maria Saporta

Maria Saporta, Editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state.  Since 2008, she has written a weekly column and news stories for the Atlanta Business Chronicle. Prior to that, she spent 27 years with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, becoming its business columnist in 1991. Maria received her Master’s degree in urban studies from Georgia State and her Bachelor’s degree in journalism from Boston University. Maria was born in Atlanta to European parents and has two young adult children.


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