William H. Foege, MD
Professor and Health Policy Fellow, Emory University
Former Head, CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)
William H. Foege stands tall as a front-line leader in one of the most ambitious public health efforts of the 20th century: the successful eradication of smallpox. He has also been instrumental in child survival efforts, HIV/AIDS prevention, and the current quest to eradicate polio.
Foege is also literally quite tall. The former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Foege tells the story of a time his stature came in handy. In the 1970s, when he went to India to lead the smallpox eradication campaign there, he enlisted a creative village chief's help in assembling the local people. "The chief told his drummer to begin pounding on a 'talking drum,'" Foege recalls. "People came flowing into the village. Almost as fast as people moved past, we vaccinated them. After two hours we had finally finished. I said to the chief: 'I'm very impressed. How do you have such control over your people?' He said, 'I told them through the talking drum to come to the village market if they wanted to see the tallest man in the world.' And I guess I looked that way to him since I'm 6'7"."
Foege derives inspiration from his childhood hero, Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who went to Africa to treat the poor. "One measure of civilization is, how well do we treat the most vulnerable members of our society?" says Foege. As a professor at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University, Foege himself has inspired many students to enter the field of global public health, championing the benefits of public health and disease prevention. Still, Foege knows preventive health can be a hard sell: "Nobody ever thanks you for saving them from the disease they didn't know they were going to get."
A man of deep integrity and personal charm, Foege has been instrumental in persuading heads of governments and CEOs of pharmaceutical companies to lend their support to public health efforts. He helped recruit Rotary International into the polio eradication effort; that organization has now been working to end polio for 25 years and, by the time the disease is eradicated, will have donated $600 million — more than any other organization besides the U.S. government.
Foege also worked to set up the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunizations and has been a leading adviser to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He believes that we are entering a new era: "People are beginning to understand there is nothing in the world so remote that it can't impact you as a person. It's not just diseases. Economists are now beginning to say if we are going to have good markets in Africa, we're going to have to have healthy people in Africa." And scientific tools such as drugs and vaccines are improving rapidly, he says. "Science is beginning to catch up with global health problems."
Foege is also on the front lines in the battle to overcome the public's resistance to the use of vaccines. As he frequently says in his public talks, "Vaccines are the tugboats of preventive health." But he emphasizes that the public's health will only be protected if the entire community agrees to participate. When he sees parents reluctant to have their children vaccinated against infectious diseases like diphtheria, tetanus, polio, measles, and whooping cough, he says, "I believe what's happened now is that parents do not know what those diseases are like, and so they've lost the fear of the disease, and it's harder for them to get the feeling they're contributing to something when they can't see that disease anymore."
Foege has seen vaccination rates wax and wane as long-term outreach efforts to encourage vaccination lose momentum. That phenomenon has piqued his interest in studying the attributes of leadership necessary to sustain preventive health programs with each new generation. He remains optimistic about the possibility of inspiring young public health leaders as well as the public itself to care — especially when the health of children is at stake.
"My friend and colleague Jim Grant of UNICEF used to say, 'Children are the Trojan horse for global health.' He was even able to get the guerrilla war in El Salvador stopped so that children could be vaccinated," Foege says. "We need leaders and followers held together by shared goals. Just imagine a world where all children could be protected against these killer diseases. It's within our grasp."