Dr. William Foege: An Inspirational Talk at The Shilling Lecture Series

Talk about gifted people and inspirational speakers! Yesterday I attended the 2010 Shilling Lecture at Southwestern University in Georgetown, where Dr. William Foege gave a superb speech to students and other attendees; his talk was moving and inspiring.

Dr. Forge is an epidemiologist who worked on the successful campaign to eradicate smallpox in the 1970’s.

The smallpox virus killed more than 300 million people during the 20th Century. When the vaccine first became available, it met with the familiar limitations encountered when epidemiologist try to create a plan to best utilize the resources available. One of the limitations in any plan is the restricted quantity of vaccine available to face such a devastating disease, when compared to the population susceptible to the illness.

Dr. Foege created a strategy of “surveillance and containment”, by which experts were able to identify focuses of disease and heavily vaccinate individuals around the focus. He made the analogy of a fire starting in a house. Firefighters must extinguish the existing fire, but by pouring water into the houses around the index case, they can assure the fire is not going anywhere, being able to better control the spread. The same tactic was utilized in the eradication of smallpox with very successful results: the disease was first contained and by 1977 the last case was reported in Somalia. The patient survived the illness, but the virus was dead. It had nowhere to go and was eliminated from the face of earth. What an accomplishment! It is estimated that more than 120 million lives where saved by the vaccine.

I get inspired when I meet people like Dr. Foege, and I hope the students of Southwestern University recognized a good example to follow. He encouraged them to participate in the making of history by writing their own individual chapter, to invest in life and to be ambitious with their dreams. He invited them to shake the world, to wake up every morning with a goal in mind.

Science is about people, Dr. Foege said. It is about making existence better for others by improving quality of life.

There is more work to be done. Young students today have an open book to write as he reminded us about the 200,000 children who die every week from vaccine-preventable illnesses. He mentioned the Tsunami a few years ago, and the terrible earthquake devastating Haiti and Chile.

About 200,000 people died in Indonesia during the tsunami and about the same number in Haiti. The whole world was moved by those disasters; cooperation and aid arrived from all around the globe and presidents joined the efforts to help the victims. The same number of children die every week from vaccine preventable diseases in the world; that information created a lump in my throat at the end of the lecture, as it really touched home. I see children in my practice everyday and I didn’t realize we still have so much work to do.

Another reality check was the information about contributions made by vaccine and drug  manufacturers to situations of need. Merck donated $ 250 million to the treatment of River Blindness in Africa. He also mentioned how, at one point, the incidence of HIV positive births at this particular hospital he visited in Africa was 40 %, and how just nine years later it had decreased to 4 %, thanks to medications and technology donated to the area.

At the end of the lecture a few students where invited to ask Dr. Foege questions. One asked a very intelligent question: “Is there a disease or ailment in the world today for which there is no sponsorship”? The good news seems to be that for most of the current threats existing in our world there is concern, investigation and help. He mentioned poverty, social conflicts, unemployment, etc, as examples of unsponsored issues menacing our communities. I am going to add one more; an epidemic threatening the health of children across national borders: the obesity epidemic.

One day we’ll have sponsored programs and international cooperation aiding in the decline of childhood obesity.

From this blog you will hear all about it when it happens. For now I will continue advising my patients, bringing awareness and help, one family at the time.

Thank you Natalie for inviting me to attend this lecture.

Marta Katalenas M.D.

Biography of Dr. William Foege

Dr. William Foege was director of the U.S. Center for Disease Control and became Chief of the CDC Smallpox Eradication Program in the 1970’s. In 1984 he was part of the Task Force for Child Survival, a working group for the World Health Organization, INICEF, The World Bank, the United Nations Development Program and the Rockefeller Foundation. He was Executive Director of he Carter Center, Fellow for Health Policy and Executive Director of Global 2000, Executive Director of he Task Force for Children Survival and Development, Presidential Distinguished Professor of International Health at the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University and Senior Medical Advisor for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He is the author of over 120 professional publications and recipient of many awards; he holds honorary degrees from numerous institutions and was named a Fellow of the London School of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. He attended Pacific Lutheran University, received his medical degree from the University of Washington and his master’s degree in public health form Harvard University.