Bill Foege: Another mountain to climb  pg. 4

So did the CDC’s Epidemic Intelligence Service, which Foege joined after earning his medical degree in 1961.

The service emerged from a government effort to develop a synthetic anti-malarial drug during World War II. Based in Atlanta, it became the surveillance arm of the fledgling CDC, on the look-out for epidemics and outbreaks of communicable disease.

In the early 1960s, Foege, assigned to the Colorado State Health Department in Denver, got a call from a doctor on a Navajo reservation in Farmingham, New Mexico. “I’ve got a case of smallpox here,” the doctor said.

A Nigerian child, held by his mother, receives a small-pox vaccination during the 1968 World Health Organization Smallpox Eradication Project.
Photo courtesy of the U.S Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
Foege, who had never seen a case of the disease, pored over a medical textbook on the way to the reservation. There he found a young boy covered with a rash. None of the lesions looked like smallpox.

So Foege became the medical sleuth—knocking on doors, talking to everyone who had contact with the boy and mapping the boys’ lesions every night. After a few days he had solved the mystery—the boy was recovering from measles and disseminated herpes.

House on fire

Foege’s experiences with the CDC only intensified his desire to go to Africa. So, after earning a master’s degree in public health from Harvard in 1965, he volunteered to serve as a doctor for a hospital operated by the Lutheran Church in Yahe, Nigeria.

In 1967, in the midst of his smallpox eradication efforts, Biafra seceded from Nigeria, prompting civil war.

His family, which by then included 1-year-old Michael, boarded an evacuation plane, leaving Foege and other doctors behind. They thought the war would end in a few days. Instead, they were drawn into a prolonged conflict: Foege saved a colleague from a Biafran soldier who was holding him at gunpoint, and he was detained several times by the rebels before he finally left the country.

He returned to Nigeria in 1968 as part of an international relief effort, and soon he was again organizing smallpox eradication. After the conflict ended in 1970, he and his colleagues were able to show that their efforts had been successful—they had quenched the disease.

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