Washington’s Own Dr. Bill Foege, Slayer of Smallpox, Awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom

On May 29, President Obama honored Washington’s own Dr. Bill Foege with the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, for his leadership of the campaign that successfully eliminated smallpox, the first and only human disease ever to be completely eradicated.

Born in 1936, the 6’7″ Dr. Foege (pronounced Fay-ghee) graduated from Pacific Lutheran University, attended the University of Washington Medical School, and interned for Public Health Seattle-King County. When he became a global health expert for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) in the 1960s, smallpox was killing 2 million people every year and infecting 50 million more. After earning an MPH from Harvard in 1965, he worked with missionary groups in Nigeria to transform their approach from hospital-based medicine to community-based medicine. Vaccine shortages and mass vaccination’s poor record led Foege and other CDC scientists in Africa to pioneer, largely on their own initiative, the “survey and containment” method of stockpiling vaccine reserves and mass vaccinating only people from areas with recorded smallpox cases. The implementation demanded ingenuity from local people and scientists alike. In one afflicted Nigerian village, Foege vaccinated 2,000 people in a single day. When he asked the chief how he had gotten so many people to come, the chief explained, “I told everyone to come and see the tallest man in the world.” As Foege recounts in his 2011 memoir House on Fire, he would explain to people that “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.” When it saw the effectiveness of the “survey and containment” strategy, the CDC adopted it as its smallpox strategy with remarkable speed for a bureaucracy. “It shows the value of having young people involved in the project,” says Foege. “Julius Richmond, the former Surgeon General, once said that the reason smallpox eradication worked is that the people involved were so young they didn’t know it couldn’t work.” In 1967, Foege joined the World Health Organization’s newly-launched campaign to eradicate smallpox through mass vaccinations. Under Foege’s leadership, the WHO smallpox program quickly adopted the “survey and containment” strategy. By the mid-1970s, the disease had been effectively eradicated. On May 8, 1980, the WHO formally certified smallpox as the first major epidemic human disease to ever be eradicated.

Dr. Foege served as Director of the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta from 1977-1983. He also co-founded the Task Force for Global Health and took up teaching at Emory University. As Executive Director of the Carter Center from 1986-1992, he led the international campaign to eliminate Guinea Worm and other diseases by pioneering new models of partnership between global health groups and pharmaceutical companies. He also served on the board of Pacific Lutheran University and played a crucial role in establishing the Global Health Program of Seattle’s Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he still serves as a Senior Fellow.

Billy Woodward, author of www.scienceheroes.com and Scientists Greater than Einstein: The Biggest Lifesavers of the 20th Century, calculates that Foege’s breakthroughs have saved the lives of 122 million people so far. Journalist Tom Paulson of KPLU 88.5 and the Humanosphere blog calls Foege “the most influential person in global health.” Yet Foege remains profoundly modest, self-effacing, and determined to share credit with others. When he told his CDC boss David Sencer that he was coming home from India, Sencer said, “No, you’re not. In a few months, you will have eradicated the last remaining cases of smallpox, the holy grail of global health.” Foege was adamant. “If I’m here, all the credit will go to the foreign people and this is something that the Indian people deserve credit for.

Foege is a passionate teacher who considers the present day to be the most exciting and promising time in the history of global health. A pious man whose uncle’s missionary work inspired him to enter the global health sector, he tells his students, “Love science but don’t worship it. There’s something better than science, and that is serving humanity.” He says global health practicitioners should understand and respect the cultures of those they seek to help and to look for inspiration everywhere. “I tell students they should be generalists and specialists simultaneously. Generalists try to figure out how the world works…and then follow some passion [as a specialist], but then you know how that passion fits into the general picture. And there are so many things to be done that you really can follow your passion and improve the world.”

Coldplay and Food Aid

A guest post by Jonathan Scanlon of Oxfam America

You might read the title and think, “What, is he crazy?  What does a popular band have to do with global hunger?”

Ok, here goes.

For more than a decade, the best selling British band Coldplay has been one of Oxfam’s biggest supporters. With an interest in using their global celebrity for good, Coldplay teamed up with Oxfam’s Make Trade Fair campaign beginning in 2002 to advocate for the end of the rigged rules and double standards of the global trading system. Band members delivered petitions to trade ministers meeting in Mexico in 2003, met with farmers from developing countries to learn more, and spoke out at their concerts around the world.

So what are they up to now?

Coldplay has continued to have an Oxfam presence on their tours and we’re back at it again this year. The U.S. leg of their upcoming tour starts in Portland on April 24 and then comes to KeyArena in Seattle on April 25 and we’ll be there. Want to join us?

We won’t be there to ask for your money, we’re there to ask for your voice.

This year Coldplay is teaming up with Oxfam to support our GROW campaign. We launched the GROW campaign last year with the goal of building a better food system:  one that sustainably feeds a growing population (estimated to reach nine billion by 2050) and empowers poor people to earn a living, feed their families, and thrive.

We are advocating for better policies that support the efforts of small farmers in developing countries.  We have an opportunity this spring to make changes to U.S. government policy through the Farm Bill – the legislation that governs America’s domestic and foreign agriculture policy.  Through our joint research with American Jewish World Service, we found that up to 17 million people could receive life-saving food aid at no additional cost to U.S. taxpayers if Congress cuts red-tape in the U.S. Farm Bill.

Right now, more than 50 percent of the aid money the government spends on basic food grains is wasted.  Instead of being used to fight hunger, these funds get caught up in overhead costs and fees, from paying for the high-priced food aid agencies are forced to buy, even if there are cheaper local alternatives available, to covering the exorbitant shipping charges of delivering aid on a limited number of expensive U.S. vessels.

 This wasteful government system not only costs taxpayers dollars – it can also create delays of up to four or six months before aid arrives. For a community facing food shortages, such as those facing a pending crisis in the Sahel or those affected by last year’s drought in the Horn of Africa, those months can be the difference between life and death.

 We can change this system for the better this year.  Congress is currently debating the Farm Bill and Oxfam is gathering petitions across the country. We’ll be out at the Coldplay show to get more people to sign on.  In Coldplay’s hit 2002 song “Clocks,” Chris Martin asks, “Am I a part of the cure or am I a part of the disease?” It’s time to rally around a cure for fixing our food aid system. Join us April 25 at KeyArena to spread the word.  (Did I forget to mention that you’ll also get to see the show for free?!?)

 Jonathan Scanlon is based in Seattle and is Lead Organizer, Economic Justice at the international relief and development organization Oxfam America, a new member of Global Washington.

Educating the Next Generation: A New IYF Report

On March 27, the International Youth Foundation released “Opportunity for Action,” a global snapshot of current state of social and economic opportunities for the world’s young people. That same day, IYF, Microsoft, and The Atlantic marked the report’s release with a worldwide town hall discussion in Charlotte, North Carolina on “The Jobs & Economy of the Future: Educating the Next Generation to Compete.” In the report, Bill Reese, President and CEO of IYF, wrote, “We need concerted, organized action that will lift us beyond today’s array of pilot youth development programs to a place where significant investments are made in proven practices and programs that can then be taken to scale.” The key to achieving this, he says, is partnerships between youth, civil society, and the public and private sectors. Corporate, government, and civic leaders are becoming increasingly aware of this, but if they do not act quickly, entire generation will never recover from the lost opportunities of its youth.

IYF and Microsoft’s programs are empowering some remarkable young people from across the world to meet the challenges they face head-on. An IYF fellowship helped Naadiya Moosaje turn South African Women in Engineering (SAWomEng) into a program where 81 volunteers mentor and guide over 2,000 girls. A Microsoft and IYF-sponsored Youth Empowerment Program (YEP) in Kenya allowed Monica Njau to start a small business that allowed her to attend university, support her destitute family and cancer-stricken mother, land a job as an insurance sales representative, and, most impressively, support her sisters’ higher education as well.

To make the millennial generation’s lives better than those of its parents, we must create millions of new opportunities for people like Naadiya and Monica. Today, there are 1.2 billion people aged 15 to 24. In 2035, there will be 1.5 billion. There is an enormous gap between what education systems give the world’s youth and what the global labor market demands from them. In many rich countries, youth unemployment is the highest in living memory: 18% in America, 22.3% in Britain, 30% in Italy, and almost 50% in Greece and Spain. And yet, as U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan told the audience, “there are no good jobs for high-school dropouts” while “we have over 2 million high-skill jobs that we can’t fill.” In Brazil, 40% of firms have difficulty filling vacancies due to Brazil’s low-quality education outcomes. In the Middle East and North Africa, almost 25% of youth are unemployed in official statistics (the reality is probably even worse). The report estimates that 600 million jobs must be created over the next decade to make up for the jobs lost to the economic crisis.

Education alone cannot provide a comprehensive solution for youth unemployment. While higher education improves young Latin Americans’ employment opportunities, university-educated youth in the Middle East and North Africa are actually more likely to be unemployed than their less-educated peers (especially in Morocco and Tunisia). Across the region, civil service jobs are declining, the private sector is struggling, and rates of female participation in the labor market are stagnating. These problems demand a fundamental re-ordering of the region’s political economy and education system, but there are few signs, even in post-revolution Tunisia and Libya, that such a process is taking place.

“Opportunity for Action” concludes with an action plan that everyone can play a role in. The report calls on policymakers to reduce barriers to youth entrepreneurship, to create new programs and incentives for training, internships, and apprenticeships for disadvantaged youths, and to ensure high-quality secondary and tertiary education that matches the labor market’s demands. It urges NGOs and bilateral and multilateral donors to evaluate program outcomes rigorously, to support demand-driven skills training programs, and to invest in public-private partnerships that turn successful, proven practices into large-scale, sustainable programs. Lastly, it encourages young people to seek career guidance, to be continuous learners, to let go of preconceived notions about livelihood opportunities, and, most importantly, to not give up.

To watch the video of the town hall event, please visit the Atlantic’s website or watch the embedded video below.