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Bill Foege slated to tell stories from his lifetime of work on the frontline of global disease
Dr. William Foege, an Islander who has had an extensive career in global health and is credited with devising the strategy to eradicate smallpox, will be the next speaker in Vashon Communty Care’s Telling Stories Speaker Series.
Foege, who said recently he has not decided which stories he will tell, will draw from his 50-year career tending to public health on a large scale.
In addition to his role in ending smallpox, he headed the Centers for Disease Control, where he worked on emerging health problems, ranging from toxic shock syndrome to the ebola virus, and The Carter Center, where he created the first such partnership with Merck & Co. to donate a drug — more than 500 million doses — to help eradicate river blindness. This disease, caused by a parasite, posed such a severe problem in Africa that in many villages all the men over 40 were blind.
Many of the stories he will tell will relate to one another in some way, Foege said, whether they are about talking drums in Nigeria, malnourished children in the Gold Coast of Africa, burning houses in India or the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
“The point is we have big stories, and stories within those stories and sometimes stories within those stories,” he said. “Often they have to do with a lack of communication within different cultures, within our own culture and even within different parts of ourselves.”
Foege’s work has involved a considerable variety of health problems around the globe, including efforts to eradicate Guinea worm disease, polio and measles. When he began in the field in the 1960s, he said, three to four million children died each year from measles. Now one billion children have been vaccinated against the disease, and the number of childhood deaths is under 300,000, a number he calls “still horrendous,” but a better than 90 percent improvement from just a few decades ago.
In all, Foege has been credited with saving 122 million people around the world, but it is a notion he discredits.
“I’ve never counted,” he said, adding that no one does anything in isolation. When he teaches at the public health program at Emory University, he said, he stresses that fact to his students.
“You can’t do anything by yourself,” he said. “We go back to Ghandi, who said you should seek interdependence with the same zeal you seek self-reliance. There is no other way. That is one of the points of the stories.”
Foege, a senior fellow with The Gates Foundation, said he has retired four times and will be leaving the foundation to return to Atlanta, where he and his wife Paula have a home, and will focus on writing more books from his career experiences. These will follow his recent book, “House on Fire, the Fight to Eradicate Smallpox,” released earlier this year.
At 75, Foege still travels and speaks extensively. A Northwest native who has lived on the Island part time for 12 years, he agreed to do the speaker series for VCC because, he said, “I like Vashon.”
Janelle Ansell, the director of Vashon Community Care, said she is thrilled Foege is participating in what will be the fifth forum in the series, which showcases the vibrancy of Island seniors.
“As an individual, he has had a profound impact on so many lives,” she said. “As a caregiver, we all want to have that positive impact on others. It’s an inspiration that reminds us why we have chosen to do what we do.”
Dr. Foege will offer his recollections in a presentation called “Things that Took Me by Surprise over My 50 Years of Global Health Work.” He will speak at 4 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 23, at Bethel Church. Ticket sales are by donation and are available at Books by the Way, Vashon Bookshop and Vashon Community Care. Tickets are expected to sell out quickly; advance purchase is recommended.