Bill Foege Oral History


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Harden, Victoria (Interviewer)
Foege, Bill (Interviewee); CDC
Dr. Wlliiam Foege served in the smallpox program in Nigeria, first as a missionary and then a staff member. The highlight of his oral history is the description of the origin and utilization of the surveillance/containment management of outbreaks. He also discusses experiences during the Biafran conflict and other anecdotes. Bill subsequently was assigned by CDC to assist the WHO in its work with the Government of India reorienting the approach to eradication in that country. He was Director of CDC from 1977-83 and is currently a Senior Fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.



Harden, Victoria (Interviewer), “Bill Foege Oral History ,” The Global Health Chronicles, accessed March 27, 2017,

 Interview Transcript

This is an interview with Dr. William Foege about his activities in the
West African smallpox eradication project.  The interview is being
conducted July 13, 2006, at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
 It is a part of the 40th anniversary celebration of the launching of the
West African smallpox eradication project.  The interviewer is Victoria

Harden:     Dr. Foege, would you briefly describe your childhood and your
           pre-college education--who influenced you to go to medical
           school and get interested in public health?
Foege:           I started out in northeast Iowa, and lived in a small town
           of 100 people.  When my family moved away, the population went
           down eight percent.  I went to a one-room schoolhouse for the
           first five years.  We then moved to Chewelah, Washington, and I
           thought I was really in a big city.  It was about 1500 people.
Harden:     And why did you move?
Foege:           My father was a minister, and he got a call to a new
           church in Chewelah, Washington.  We moved for that reason.  From
           there, I went to Colville when he started a new church in
           Colville, and that's where I graduated from high school.  I went
           from high school to Pacific Lutheran [College], what is now
           Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington, and became
           interested in biology, because of a very forceful biology
           teacher who was a man I've never seen the likes of.
Harden:     What was his name?
Foege:           His name was William Strunk. In class, he would walk into
           the room, lecturing as he walked in.  He would go to the board
           and actually write with both hands simultaneously, putting up
           phyla and families and classes and genera.  He would still be
           talking as he left the room.  I was a lab assistant to him and
           also worked at his place on weekends, doing yardwork.  He played
           an important part in getting me into science.  My older sister,
           Grace, four years older, had gone to the same school, and she
           went to medical school.  She also was an influence.  I was also
           influenced as a fifteen-year-old when I spent three months in a
           body cast, unable to turn over or do anything.  That was in the
           days before television, so I was doing a lot of reading.  I
           began reading about Albert Schweitzer, and medicine, and Africa,
           and all of this became very interesting to me.
Harden:     Had you had an accident, or...?
Foege:           I had a problem with my hip that required three months of
           immobility.  The hope was that it would heal correctly, and it
           did, but the hip was always off a little bit.  This period was a
           time of reflection and reading that I might not have had without
           that physical problem.
                 In medical school, I began working after school and on
           Saturdays for a fellow by the name of Ray Ravenholt.  Ray
           Ravenholt had been one of the first EIS officers, Epidemic
           Intelligence Service officers, at CDC [Centers for Disease
           Control], and he was always pushing the idea of public health
           and also the idea that I should think about joining the EIS at
           CDC.  I went off to New York for my internship, and I had been
           accepted in an internal medicine residency, when I got a call
           from Don Millar [J. Donald Millar] at CDC.  He said they had
           just received some positions that enabled them to expand the EIS
           class, and would I be interested?  I abandoned my idea of going
           into internal medicine, and went to CDC in the EIS class of
Harden:     Had you always been interested in public health, or was that
           just a sideline until you got to CDC?
Foege:           Ray Ravenholt was such a powerful influence on me that I
           was interested in public health by the time I graduated from
           medical school.  Of course, I didn't see exactly where I was
           going until Don Millar called with this EIS opening, but then I
           never looked back.  I was extremely pleased at CDC with the EIS
                 I was first assigned to Colorado, a state assignment, and
           while there I did two overseas TDYs [Temporary Duty].  One was
           to India, in 1963.  At an EIS conference, they had announced
           that the person holding the Peace Corps position in India had
           taken sick.  It was going to take some time to replace him, so
           they were looking for a volunteer to go as the Peace Corps
           physician.  This I did, and it turned out to be important in so
           many ways.  I saw global health close up.  I saw my first cases
           of smallpox.  I made rounds at Holy Family Hospital in New
                 I worked for a man by the name of Charlie Houston, who was
           key in mountaineering.  In 1953, he had actually led a group up
           K2 [Karakoram 2 mountain in Pakistan], and before getting to the
           top they were stuck in a storm.  One person developed deep vein
           thrombosis in one leg and then developed it in the other leg.
           Charlie Houston said that they had to get him down, but everyone
           said, "We can't go down in a storm."  Houston said, "It's his
           only hope."  So they attempted to rescue him in a storm, and as
           they were descending across an ice field at a forty-five degree
           angle, one person slipped and fell.  This person got tangled up
           in another rope, and then four people were falling.  They hit
           Charlie Houston, who was on a third rope and knocked him
           unconscious.  The four people plus the three on Charlie
           Houston's rope were all falling, and they were held by a man by
           the name of Peter Schoening, who, with his ice axe, was able to
           stop all of them.  It's an incredible story, and to make it even
           more incredible, two months ago I went to the University of
           Colorado, where they gave Charlie Houston, at age 93, an
           honorary degree.  They had a half-day program giving him an
           honor. All of the survivors of that 1953 expedition were there,
           including Bob Bates at age 95, former headmaster at Exeter, and
           Bob Craig, the youngest of the group, who was now in his late
           80s.  Charlie Houston was spectacular person to work for.  He
           was able to demonstrate that you can work in a developing
           country and not get overwhelmed by it.  He always got up every
           morning just happy to be working and was never overwhelmed.
Harden:     I believe that you also were involved as an EIS officer with
           the group that went to Tonga to evaluate the smallpox vaccine,
           and the jet injector.  Would you talk about that?
Foege:           The other overseas TDY that I did was to Tonga, a group
           headed by Ron Roberto [Ronald R. Roberto].  The idea was to see
           could you dilute smallpox vaccine and use it in a jet injector.
           Tonga had not done routine vaccinations since 1905, so it
           provided a virgin population in which you could measure
           antibodies and so forth, and the Tongans were agreeable to
           having this study done.  We wanted to evaluate the effectiveness
           of different dilutions of smallpox vaccine--a one-to-ten, one-to-
           fifty, one-to-one hundred, and so forth.  It turned out to be a
           very good study that demonstrated you could dilute the vaccine
           one to fifty, and that you would still get uniform take rates.
           We also demonstrated that the vaccinations could be given with
           the jet injector, which didn't require special training in
           technique to have the vaccinations come out the same with every
           person.  It was easy to train a person to use a jet injector.
           This turned out to be a very important study.
Harden:     May I ask you to describe how the jet injector worked?  Did it
           actually touch the people's skin, and if so, did you have to
           sterilize it between uses?  I don't understand how you could do
           thousands a day, if you had to sterilize between every one.
Foege:           The jet injector nozzle actually did press up against the
           skin.  At that time, people were quite sure that there was no
           chance of cross-contamination, that the vaccine came out at high
           pressure, but we've subsequently changed our mind about this,
           and that's why we don't use jet injectors at this point.  But
           because we believed it completely safe at that time, one could
           actually do people almost as fast as they could walk by.  You
           set up a rhythm: grab the arm, step on the hydraulic lever,
           shoot, and the person would continue on.  You could do a
           thousand people an hour, and I remember at one point doing a
           prison in eastern Nigeria, where they had the inmates lined up,
           and they were actually pushing them through by hitting them with
           sticks.  I did 600 people in twenty minutes, because it was such
           a regimented line that you could just grab people and do them so
           fast.  At one point, I recall doing over 11,000 smallpox
           immunizations in one day.  So, yes, you could do this very
Harden:     Before we move on in your career, is there anything else that
           you would like to comment about in your EIS training here at the
Foege:           In those days at CDC, anyone in the EIS program saw Alex
           Langmuir [Alexander Langmuir] as a mentor.  He was a very
           powerful personality.  He knew what he was doing, he was
           inspired and inspiring.  And so I'd look back on those days as
           days where Alex Langmuir was reaffirming how important it was to
           do public health, and how important it was to do global health.
           He was interested in everything.
                 Also during that time as an EIS officer, I read an article
           in the New England Journal of Medicine.  It was called
           AQuestions of Priority,@ written by Tom Weller [Thomas H.
           Weller].  I had no idea at the time that Tom Weller was a Nobel
           laureate, but when I read the article, I knew I wanted to know
           him, because he was saying in the article things that I
           believed.  It was a commencement address to the Harvard Medical
           School, and he was essentially saying,
                  "You're only going through life once, you might as well
                 try to get it right, and here [at Harvard] you come out
                 with all these skills and this knowledge, and you have to
                 ask how you're going to use it.  Think about using it in
                 the parts of the world that can best use these resources.
                 The developing world doesn't have the resources of skills
                 and knowledge, and now that you've gone through, think
                 about using what youve learned in the developing world."
Harden:     Maybe I can digress here for one philosophical question.  The
           early 1960s were an idealistic time, in a variety of ways, and
           the idea that to get it right in life you went and served people
           is a very different idea from getting all you can for yourself.
           Would you comment on the idealism of your peers in this period?
Foege:           The early 1960s turned out to be a very nice time to be
           growing up in the United States.  President Kennedy inspired
           people with the idea of the Peace Corps.  People thought about
           how best to serve their country and how best to serve the world.
            So when I read an article by a Harvard professor saying the
           same thing, I decided that I wanted to get to know him.  I
           applied at Harvard, and no place else, and I spent a year with
           Tom Weller.
Harden:     As I understand, you did this on your own, rather than having
           the CDC sending you.  You received a Master's of Public Health
           degree.Foege:          That's right.  CDC actually offered a
           career development program to me, which meant that I could have
           training paid for for a number of years, and then I would pay
           back a certain number of years.  But by this time, I already
           knew I was going to Africa or someplace else in the developing
           world, and it didn't seem fair to have CDC pay for my education
           and then, even if I paid back a certain period of time, leave
           for another job.  So I went to Harvard on my own.  I did get a
           scholarship, but I went on my own, and it turned out to be
           everything that I had hoped it would be.  Tom Weller was an
           inspiring person.  He worked with an inspiring group of people,
           including Frank Neva [Franklin A. Neva], who was my faculty
           advisor.  Neva is the father-in-law of Peter D. Bell, who became
           president of CARE, and the father of Karen Bell, who ended up
           teaching here at Emory University in the School of Public
           Health.  And so it turned out to be a very nice experience.
           When Tom Weller retired from Harvard, it so happened that I gave
           the commencement address that year.  I got out that New England
           Journal of Medicine article, and I read the portions that I had
           found so attractive before, and made the point that you never
           know what will ripple downstream from what you say or what you
           write.  Well, Tom Weller got a standing ovation in the middle of
           my commencement address, and it completed a circle.  I've
           remained in contact with Tom Weller, who's in his 90s, just as I
           have with Charlie Houston and some of my other mentors.
Harden:     When you finished your training at Harvard, you joined a
           medical missionary program in the Lutheran church.  Apparently
           it took a bit of effort to convince them to let you do a public
           health mission, as opposed to a primary care mission.  Would you
           talk a bit about that, and what you finally set up?
Foege:           Let me mention one more thing about Harvard before going
           to that.  In one of Tom Weller's classes, we had to do an
           independent project and present it.  I happened to do a project
           on the feasibility of smallpox eradication in the world.  I had
           no idea that I would ever be involved in this, but I found it an
           intriguing topic.  There was a person in this group, Yeme
           Ademola, who was the head of preventive medicine for Nigeria.
           He had taken a year off to get a master's degree at Harvard, so
           Yeme and his wife Rosa were there, and he was part of that
           class.  After graduation, Yeme Ademola came down to CDC, and
           talked to people about his interest in smallpox eradication in
           Nigeria.  This is a small aside.
                 After graduation from Harvard, I went to Nigeria to work
           for a church group.  I knew that most of the hospital beds in
           Africa were provided by church groups, so they had a big
           influence on health in Africa.  But almost all of them were
           involved in clinics and hospitals, not in community work.  It's
           easy to see why that would happen, because church programs had
           found that medicine was a great proselytizing tool.  People in
           hospitals and clinics felt real gratitude, and so medicine
           turned out to be a form of recruitment.  I always felt that was
           wrong, I felt that churches should be working in Africa or other
           places because of what they believed, not because of what they
           were trying to get other people to believe.
                 I wondered what would happen if you could get this force
           looking at community medicine instead of hospital medicine.
           Community medicine takes a far different approach to things.  In
           the end, it made no difference that I actually went to Africa to
           try to make that change.  There were other things happening at
           the same time that would cause church groups to shift to
           community medicine.  The World Council of Churches had a
           Christian medical commission, and there was a fellow by the name
           of McGilvray [James C. McGilvray] who headed that up. He
           believed in community medicine.  He was so influential that, in
           a period of years, he got medical mission programs to change in
           three fundamental ways.  Number one, he got them to understand
           they had to work under governments.  Colonialism was over, and
           they had to work under sovereign governments.  Number two, he
           got them to work together.  They had been very competitive in
           the past.  In many countries there would be one person who was
           the coordinator for all Protestant work, and another one who was
           the coordinator for all Catholic work.  McGilvray's influence
           resulted in--at least, in a few countries--those two sitting in
           the same office. This was an incredible change.  Number three,
           he got them interested in community medicine.  So I could have
           saved my time.  I didn't prove anything by going over.  It was
           happening anyway.  But I did go over, and I was trying to
           promote community medicine.  I would probably have spent decades
           working on this, except that when the war in Nigeria came, it
           went through our medical compound within the first weeks.
Harden:     Would you back up and tell me exactly where you were, what was
           happening, and what you were doing when the war came?
Foege:           I graduated from Harvard in 1965, and that summer, we left
           for Nigeria.  We went to a medical center in the eastern part of
           Nigeria.  In those days, Nigeria did not have states.  It had
           only four regions.  The north, the east, the west, and the
           midwest.  We were in the eastern region.  This was the region
           that was dominated by Ibos, who would later form the Republic of
           Biafra.  We were in a minority area of the east, in a place
           called Ogoja province, up near the Cameroon border.  In this
           area, there was a medical center at a place called Yahe.  It was
           a crossroads town, and that's where we went.  We spent the first
           six months living in a village in order to learn the local
           language.  It was an eye-opener, because it was a village with
           no electricity, no running water, and no indoor bathrooms, that
           sort of thing.  We had an opportunity to see what life was like
           in a village.  We had a three-year-old son at the time.
Harden:     So you were married, with children, at this point?
Foege:           Yes.  I had a wife, Paula, who will be the next
           interviewee, and a three-year-old son, David, and we had the
           naive notion that we would actually know what it was like to
           live in a village.  There's actually no way to know that,
           because we could leave any time.  The people living there
           couldn't leave.  Living there was a form of bondage that I don't
           think it's possible for us to understand.  But we were trying
           to.  We lived in the village for six months and then moved to
           the medical compound.  While we were at the medical compound,
           CDC asked if I would spend time as a consultant for the smallpox
           eradication program.
Harden:     This was before or after the revolution?
Foege:           This was before the war broke out.  We had been in Nigeria
           for almost a year at the time that Henry Gelfand came to Enugu
           to ask me if I would be a consultant.   Our medical center was
           ninety miles from Enugu, the capital of the eastern region, but
           we agreed that for a period of one or two years, I would work as
           a consultant on smallpox eradication, and I would go back to the
           medical center on weekends.  I would try to do both things,
           ninety miles apart.  In 1966, Paula and I returned to CDC to
           take the summer course for the people who were first going out
           to Africa on the smallpox eradication work.  This is the group
           now meeting for a reunion.  It turned out to be a very nice time
           for us to be back, because my wife was pregnant, and she
           delivered our second child, a boy, in September.  It all worked
           out that we came back here, and she had the baby in Walla Walla,
           Washington, where my folks were living, and I attended the
           summer course and then met up with her.
                 Now, an interesting aside.  It takes a while to get a
           passport for a baby, to get a baby added to a passport.  I even
           contemplated taking a picture of any baby and getting this on
           the passport before ours was born, so that we could move more
           quickly.  I did not take that route, showing more sanity than
           usual.  We waited, and I returned to Nigeria.  Paula came over
           with the two children when the baby was about six weeks old.
Harden:     These are the small logistical problems, personal logistical
           problems that people  rarely think about.
Foege:           Sometimes they turn out to be overwhelming.  When I knew
           that I would be coming to the US for the summer course at CDC, I
           bought tickets for my wife and for David.  CDC would send the
           ticket for me.  We got to Lagos, ready to board the flight, but
           my ticket had not arrived from CDC.  I talked with the Pan-Am
           manager, and he said,  "You're in luck, because the plane is
           late by twenty-four hours.  We have more time to try to get the
           ticket."  But it was July fourth.  That meant nothing in
           Nigeria, but it meant we couldn't get anything out of CDC.  And
           so the next day, we went right down to the line with tickets for
           them but no ticket for me.  About an hour and a half before
           flight time, the manager called me in, and he said, "We haven't
           heard anything.  But I'll tell you what I'll do.  If you write
           out a check for the amount of the ticket, I'll put it in my desk
           drawer, and so I'm covered if I get audited."  I told him, "I
           can't do that.  I don't have that amount of money in my
           account."  We were at an impasse, but an hour before flight
           time, he said, "I'll tell you what I'm going to do, and I've
           never done this before.  I'm going to give you a ticket."  And
           he said, "I'm going to have to write out the check if I get
           audited."  He gave me a ticket, and we got in line.  But the
           airline representatives said, "This ticket was for yesterday."
           I said, "Of course it was.  The plane was supposed to be here
           yesterday."  Then I had to go back to the Pan-Am agent and say,
           "They won't take this ticket."  He was exasperated by that time,
           but he got us through.  We got on the plane finally, and at last
           I felt that we could relax.  I actually said to my wife, "Isn't
           it going to be nice to get back to the States, where things
                 We got to New York.  It was hot, it was at night, and we
           were twenty-four hours late, so, of course, everyone had to have
           new connections.   My wife and son had a new connection, but I
           didn't, because I didn't actually have a ticket.  This caused a
           problem.  Pan Am said that they would put everyone up overnight
           and that we would all get out in the morning.  We stood in the
           heat, and even though we were coming from Nigeria, it struck me
           how hot it was in New York.  We were  waiting for the bus to
           take us to the motel, the traveler's motel.  There was a Pan-Am
           man there in a suit and a tie.  He was very efficient.  He
           picked me out and asked me to give them a hand.  And then he
           picked out another person, and I realized he picked us for our
           size.  He took us outside and said, "The battery's dead on the
           bus.  Would you help push it to get the bus started?"  And we
           did.  We pushed it fast enough to get the motor to turn over,
           and the engine caught.  Then he called for men to board first.
           I wondered why he did this, but the men, like sheep, got onto
           the bus.  It turned out that the back of the bus was very hot.
           He was saving the front of the bus for the women and children.
                 I heard him say to the bus driver, "Remember to stop at
           the first service station and put in three quarts of oil."  I
           thought, "Three quarts of oil.  This is a real problem."  The
           bus driver let out the clutch and killed the motor.  Everyone
           was told to stay on the bus, as hot as it was.  The Pan-Am man
           said that another bus was coming to push this one to get it
           started, and that's what happened.  And again he said to the bus
           driver, "Remember, three quarts of oil."  We went down the
           highway, and it must have been eleven or eleven-thirty at night
           by then.  He pulled off into a service station and sat there for
           a moment.  Then he turned around and said, "You know, folks, if
           I stop the engine to put in oil, we're not going to get it
           started again."  And so off he went onto the highway, and soon
           the motor froze up.  There we were, on the side of the road,
           with the motor frozen, and he told  everybody to get off the bus
           because it was too hot to stay on.  He made a phone call, and
           pretty soon this Pan-Am agent comes screaming up in a car, and
           by this time he had his tie off and his jacket off and he was
           starting to look disheveled.  He said, "Don't worry, we have
           some cars and another small bus coming."  When the cars and the
           small bus came, he told the women and children to get in the
           cars, and the men to get in the bus.  All the women and children
           did as they were told, except my wife, who stayed with me.  She
           said, "The way things are going tonight, I may never see my
           husband again, so I'm not moving."  Finally, we got on the bus
           and we get to the motel.  But to have said, AWon't it be nice to
           get back where things work?@ and then run into this, it was
Harden:     Would you now walk me through the events in the Nigerian war
           that forced you to end the mission program and moved you into
Foege:           In the last part of 1966, and the early part of 1967,
           there was a lot of tension in Nigeria.  The east kept
           threatening to form its own country.  In retrospect, I suppose
           oil was behind this, but we didn't quite understand it at the
           time.  We continued working.  In late 1966, two very important
           things relating to smallpox happened during my time in eastern
           Nigeria.  One was a mass vaccination program we did in a place
           called Abakaliki.  We were very successful, getting about ninety-
           three percent of the population vaccinated.  We were pleased by
           this kind of coverage, only to see an outbreak of smallpox a few
           weeks later in Abakaliki.  We didn't think that this should have
           happened, because we believed in the idea of herd immunity.
           What was different about the outbreak was that it occurred in a
           religious group, Faith Tabernacle Church.  All of the cases were
           in the Faith Tabernacle Church.  The members of this church had
           refused vaccination.  The source of the outbreak had probably
           come from another Faith Tabernacle member outside of Abakaliki.
           The point is that we found that no level of vaccination in a
           population was so high that you could exclude the possibility of
           smallpox.  That's one thing that happened.
Harden:     You said that your independent project at Harvard was to come
           up with a smallpox vaccination strategy.  Had your strategy for
           that project been mass vaccination?
Foege:           Everyone in those days was thinking in terms of mass
           vaccination, and that's what I was thinking of when I was at
           Harvard, that if you got to a certain level of vaccination, you
           would make it so difficult for smallpox to be transmitted that
           it would just die away.  That's what we thought, but the
           experience in Abakaliki proved otherwise.
                 The second thing that happened occurred on December 4,
           1966.  It was a Sunday.  I got a radio message from Hector
           Ottomueller, a missionary, who asked if I could come to look at
           what he thought might be smallpox.  We went to the area, which
           was probably six, seven miles off of a road.  We used Solex
           bicycles, French bicycles with a small motor on the front.  They
           were so light that when you came to a creek, you could actually
           walk across on a log holding the bicycle in one hand.  They were
           a very efficient method of transport.  Sure enough, these were
           smallpox cases.  It was so early in the program, we didn't have
           much in the way of supplies, and then I learned we wouldn't get
           any more supplies.  We were faced with the question of how to
           use our small amount of smallpox vaccine most effectively under
           these conditions.
                 That night, we went to a missionary's house to take
           advantage of the fact that they got on the radio with each other
           at 7:00 pm each night to be sure no one was having a medical
           emergency.  With maps in front of me, I was able to give each
           missionary a geographic area, and ask if they could send runners
           to every village in that area to find out if there were any
           smallpox cases in any of the villages.  Twenty-four hours later,
           we got back on the radio to see what they had found.  That night
           we knew exactly where smallpox was.  Our strategy was to use
           most of the vaccine in the villages where we knew that smallpox
           existed.  Second, we tried to out-figure the smallpox virus.  I
           mean, we literally asked ourselves, "If we were a smallpox virus
           bent on immortality, what would we do?"  The answer was to find
           susceptible hosts in order to continue growing.  So we figured
           out where people were likely to go because of market patterns
           and family patterns.  We chose three areas that we thought were
           susceptible, and we used the rest of our vaccine to vaccinate
           those three areas.  That used up all of our vaccine.  We didn't
           know it, but in two of the areas, smallpox was already
           incubating, but by the time the first clinical cases appeared,
           those areas had been vaccinated.  And so smallpox went no place.
            By three or four weeks later, the outbreak had stopped.  And we
           had vaccinated such a small proportion of the population!
                 There was this contrast between the situation in
           Abakaliki, with a very high percentage of coverage and still a
           smallpox outbreak, and that in Ogoga province, with very poor
           coverage, but with an outbreak that was halted.  We began to
           wonder if this new strategy might be worth trying in larger
           areas.  We talked to the Ministry of Health.  It was a very
           crucial time, because war was being talked about every day.  The
           Ministry of Health said that in the eastern region, they were
           willing to change the whole strategy against smallpox.  We could
           put all of our attention on finding smallpox and containing each
           outbreak.  Five months later, when war fever was  at a peak, we
           were working on the last known outbreak in that entire region of
           twelve million people.  In five months, we'd cleared out every
           outbreak.  We were working on the last outbreak when war broke
                 Now I didn't know that war was going to break out at that
           moment.  The smallpox program had planned a meeting in Accra,
           Ghana, for the first of July, 1967.  I went to the American
           consulate in Enugu and asked, "What's the chance that there will
           be fighting in the next weeks?"  And they said, "Not a chance.
           Neither side is strong enough at this point to actually initiate
           anything."  But the border had already been closed between the
           east, which called itself Biafra, and the rest of Nigeria, and
           six weeks earlier, we had sent our wives and children out.  We
           had gone to Port Harcourt, where our wives and children got on
           planes.  They were DC-6s, I can still recall.  It took forever
           for them to get off the runway, because every seat had an adult
           and a child.
Harden:     And where did the planes go?
Foege:           From Port Harcourt to Lagos.  Port Harcourt was in the
           east, but they had received permission for people to fly out.
                 When the smallpox meeting was about to start in Accra,
           Ghana, I determined from the consulate that we would not have to
           worry about fighting in the short term.  We crossed the Niger
           River in canoes.  They were slightly big canoes.   There was no
           formal border between the two regions.  And yet, we got our
           passports stamped on each side, by people who were pretending
           that this was all legitimate.  We got taxis from the other side
           of the river to Lagos, and  from there we got to Accra.  We were
           in Accra at this meeting when the fighting broke  out.  The
           American consulate had it all wrong, and we couldn't get back.
           We did not know for months whether that last outbreak had
           actually been contained or not.  It turns out that it was
           contained.  There was never any smallpox in the area of fighting
           during the Nigerian-Biafran civil war.  That turned out to be a
           real blessing.  But think of how close we came.  There was a
           window of opportunity because of our December experience with
           the small outbreak.  We had asked if we could try this strategy
           on a larger area, and in five months we had cleared out smallpox
           from the entire region.  Because of that, smallpox turned out
           not to be a factor in the war.
Harden:     So you knew by then that this method of
           "surveillance/ontainment" or "eradication escalation"--whatever
           term we are going to use--was a more effective way to eradicate
           smallpox.  And at this point, when you were asked to come back
           into CDC, you must have had to sell this idea to people.  Tell
           me about whom you had to sell it to, and what you did to sell
Foege:           At the end of the meeting in Ghana, I wasn't quite sure
           what to do, since the east was now closed because of the war.  I
           went back to Lagos, and it was decided that I would work in
           northern Nigeria for a while.  I also need to step back just a
           few weeks, or a few months, to say that on one morning, in
           Enugu, a Saturday morning, we went in to work and found that
           there were cases of smallpox in the hospital in Enugu.  And
           suddenly we knew we had to do something in Enugu itself and
           spent the rest of that day planning for doing vaccination in
           Enugu.  That afternoon, I went out in a VW bug, and mapped out
           the places in Enugu where you had enough room that you could
           actually have people lined up to do vaccinations.  I was not
           thinking of anything except smallpox at that point.  But
           suddenly, I was surrounded by police.  Someone had reported that
           there I was with maps, and of course that looked suspicious, so
           I was arrested.  It took hours before they would allow me to
           make a phone call.  I wanted to call my wife, so that she would
           know why I wasn't coming home for dinner.  They would not let me
           do that.  But they eventually let me call my counterpart, Dr.
           Anazanwu, in the Ministry of Health, and he came down and got me
           bailed out.  I tell this just to make the point that I had been
           arrested by the Biafrans.
                 When I went to work in northern Nigeria, I was in Sokoto
           province, which is up in the northwest part of Nigeria.  I had
           just set up a tent for the night, and was getting ready to cook
           dinner, when a pickup drove up and police officers got out.  A
           man came up to me, gave me a piece of paper, and asked me,"Is
           this you?"  And there was my name on the paper.  And I said,
           "yes."  And he said, "You're under arrest."  He would not
           communicate anything more.  He would not say why I was under
           arrest, but I had to put everything together and get into the
           back of the pickup.  And we started the long trip back.  At one
           point, they stopped at a guest house in order to go in and drink
           beer.  They left me alone, sitting in the back seat of that
           pickup, with a pistol on the front seat.  I knew I didn't want
           to move at all, which I didn't.  They came back, and we
           continued to ride.  In Kaduna I was put under house arrest, and
           after several days, they said that they would allow me to leave
           the country, if I would never return.  I left and flew out to
           Ghana.  But a few weeks later, I was asked to go back to Lagos
           by the regional office of the smallpox eradication program.  I
           knew how poorly official records were kept, so I went back, and
           there was never any problem.  The point I am making is that I
           was arrested by both sides, which showed my neutrality.
                 When I went back to CDC, I expected that the war was going
           to be finished within weeks.  That was my thinking, and when I
           returned to CDC, I came back as a contract employee for what I
           thought would be a period of weeks or months.  I began working
           on the idea of using surveillance/containment throughout West
           and Central Africa.  That's what I worked on--selling the idea.
            Some people were sold immediately.  I mean, I think of Don
           Hopkins [Donald R. Hopkins] going to Sierra Leone, which had the
           highest rates of smallpox in the world.   Sierra Leone at that
           time had poor communications and transportation.  He started out
           from the beginning, doing surveillance/containment.  He never
           bothered with mass vaccination, and surveillance/containment
           worked, well.  Other people were more reluctant, and I can
           understand that.  We had sold most of the governments on
           universal vaccination.  Eastern Nigeria had been easy to
           convert.  They saw the logic, but it was not that easy every
           place.  But gradually, place after place did do this, and the
           bottom line was, we were able to eradicate smallpox in five
           years.  In country after country, smallpox disappeared.  I'm
           quite sure that in any geographic area where they converted to
           surveillance/containment, twelve months later, it was smallpox
           free.  Nigeria had its last cases in May of 1970, and the whole
           twenty-country West African area had smallpox disappear in three
           years and five months, a year and seven months before the
           target, and under budget.
Harden:     What I'm hearing from you is that each group working in the
           field had to choose to adopt this approach, that there was no
           top-down direction from Atlanta.  I thought that an order might
           have come from headquarters in Atlanta, instructing everybody to
           stop doing mass vaccination and start doing
           surveillance/containment.  That was not the way it happened?
Foege:           It's hard to make that kind of change when countries are
           autonomous and they have their own programs, and they've not
           been sold on a new approach.  Don Millar was an immediate
           convert to surveillance/containment, and he was in charge of the
           entire West Central African program.  Mike Lane had a fiefdom, a
           region that he was in charge of, and he was an immediate
           convert.  So, right from the beginning, we were talking this
           out.  With each meeting, it was possible to demonstrate that
           surveillance/containment was working in particular areas, and so
           gradually, everyone did come on board.  But it took a little
           while.  Nonetheless, to have smallpox disappear in three years
           and five months--it didn't take long.
Harden:     So the program agreements that were initially signed with each
           country had described mass vaccinations, and in shifting to
           surveillance/containment, you had to "sell" each individual
           country, correct?
Foege:           That's right.  And to me, the amazing thing is not that it
           took some period of time.  The amazing thing is how fast we
           changed strategy.  I mean, we just turned things upside-down,
           and it happened in twenty countries.
Harden:     To me, as a historian, the fascinating thing is how that
           flexibility was embraced.  So many times change is not embraced
           when somebody has a new idea and can demonstrate that it works,
           because people are so invested in the old idea.
Foege:           It also shows the value of having young people involved in
           the project.  Julie Richmond [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.  And you know, that's probably true.
           People were very flexible.  And when you think of the number of
           people that went from CDC into West Africa, most of them had
           never had experience in West Africa.  And yet, they adapted
           fast.  I think, when you look at the group as a whole, what
           characterizes them is that they were problem solvers.  Everyone
           has mixed motives, of course.  It's hard to know exactly what
           motivates people.  Today I am often asked, "What is Bill Gates's
           motivation?  And I say, "How do I know?  I don't even know my
           own motivation, it's such a mixture of things."  The people
           involved in smallpox eradication had a lot of interest in doing
           new things, and exploring, and so forth.  But the thing that
           characterized them all was that they were problem solvers.  You
           couldn't give them a problem that was so difficult they didn't
           want to try to solve it.  And so, they were very adaptable.
           When a new idea came out, they quickly used it.
Harden:     In the middle of the West African smallpox eradication effort,
           there was a recommendation that smallpox vaccines be stopped in
           the United States.  Were you involved in these discussions?
Foege:           I was involved during those years.  In 1971, we really did
           attempt to stop smallpox vaccination in the United States.  It
           took a lot of courage to support that, because there was still
           smallpox in Africa, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh--lots of
           places.  But but by then Mike Lane and John Neff and other
           people had done the calculations that showed what the risk was
           of the vaccine.  The United States had a risk of smallpox coming
           in from another country, but we concluded that the risk of
           importation was less than that of the vaccine itself.  Part of
           the reason is geography.  Europe acted as a filter for smallpox
           cases.  People coming from Africa or from India or Pakistan,
           often went to Europe first, and then to the United States, so
           Europe continued to have outbreaks, and we didn't.  We
           calculated the risk of smallpox coming to the United States.
           For instance, if you look at ships, because of the time it takes
           to get here, and so forth, we were able to calculate the risk of
           smallpox coming to the United States by ship was about one
           importation in 600 years.  It is far greater than that for
           airplanes, but it gives you an idea that it was possible to
           calculate the risk based on the incidence in a country, how many
           people go from that country to the United States, what
           percentage of them are probably not adequately protected, and so
           forth.  The recommendation to stop giving smallpox vaccinations
           in the United States came out in 1971.  It took quite a while
           before it was actually followed by everyone.
                 As a part of that recommendation, we also developed a plan
           for what to do if there was an importation.  Some of us went to
           the states-we got to all of the states--to train their public
           health officials as to what would be needed if a smallpox case
           was imported.  We used what was called the CASE manual.  "CASE"
           stood for Comprehensive Action for a Smallpox Emergency.  Inside
           the front cover of that notebook was a big chart that you unfold
           and put up on the wall.  It showed every step that you had to
           take.  And every step had a place in the notebook that gave the
           details.  Our point in designing this manual was that people did
           not have to study this ahead of time.  They just needed to know
           that it was available to tell them what steps to take if they
           thought they had a case of smallpox.  This was very important so
           that no one would panic if a case appeared.  The chart in the
           CASE manual was very clear.   I  think we did a good job of
           educating the state health officers, the counties and so forth,
           on what to do in case of a smallpox outbreak.
Harden:     Is there is anything else about the West African program you
           would like to talk about?
Foege:           I think we've covered the main things.  The only other
           things I had were stories of various kinds, but I don't think
           they're as important as the big picture.
Harden:     I'd like to hear those stories!
Foege:           The program itself, as you can imagine, was very
           difficult.  Communications were bad, transportation was
           difficult, it was often hard to get food.  It was not an easy
           time to be in an area in which civil war was about to break out.
            There were many tensions.  There were roadblocks where teenage
           boys with guns were drinking beer and making decisions.  This
           was difficult.
Harden:     Were you afraid?
Foege:           You always had to be a little bit afraid of a teenage boy
           with a gun who's drunk.  They do irrational things.  So, yes,
           you never wanted to talk back.  There are many stories from that
           time.  Once at these roadblocks, they looked into the trunk of
           one woman's car and saw that she had a labeling machine.  A
           labeling machine looks a little bit like a pistol, but not much
           like one, but they were curious to know what this device was.
           She explained that it would make their name, and then she showed
           them.  They spelled out their names, and she made a label for
           each of them.  When they cleared her to proceed, she continued
           down the road but heard a rattling in the trunk of the car.  She
           stopped to look and found three guns in the trunk.  Each boy had
           taken his label and walked off with it, leaving his gun.  She
           immediately drove back to return the guns, and of course, the
           boys were very nervous, thinking a commanding officer was going
           to come by and see that they didn't have their guns.
                 You worried about the roadblocks.  As the wives were
           leaving from Port Harcourt, one of our people had gotten a
           little upset with a guard who asked them once more to open their
           suitcases.  He said, "We've already opened it."  Of course,  the
           guard did not like his response.  Next thing, he had him in a
           room, with a guard and a gun.  Then this person realized that he
           had the key to his wife's suitcase.  The other guards continued
           to ask her to open it, but she couldn't because he had the key.
           He asked the guard, "Couldn't I just go out and give her the
           key?"  The guard said, "No."  So he said, "What would you do if
           I just stood up and walked over and gave her the key?"  The
           guard said, "I'd shoot you."  My friend stood up, and the guy
           cocked the gun. And my friend sat down again.  Then he asked me
           to come in, and I talked to the guard and asked if I could give
           the key to my friend's wife, and the guard let me do that.  But
           because of this confrontation, my friend was never even able to
           say goodbye to his wife.  So you just did not want to fool
           around with people.
                 One day, I was in a big, green International van, and we
           were driving down the road and saw a checkpoint up ahead.  The
           driver-there were just the two of us in the car--started putting
           on the brakes, but the brakes had gone out.  He tried to pull
           the emergency brake, but it did not work, either.  The last
           thing he was going to do was go through that barrier, and so he
           went off the road, into a ditch.  We bounced around, hit a tree,
           and ended up against a building.  Suddenly, we were surrounded
           by people.  This is a common thing in Africa.  You think you're
           out in deserted land, but as soon as something happens, you're
           surrounded by people.  It took a while for me to realize what
           was happening.  The local chief came, and he was a real orator.
           He began telling me what we had just done.  He said that that
           tree we hit was a juju tree, and that we had offended it by
           knocking it down with our vehicle, and so he would have to do a
           sacrifice.  He would sacrifice a chicken.  This chicken would
           cost ten shillings.  When he was all done, and it took him a
           long time to get to that point, I breathed a sigh of relief,
           because I hadn't  known what was coming.  Ten shillings--that
           was nothing.  But then something perverse took over in my mind,
           and I began talking back in the same way that he did, telling
           him that I understood all of this, and that, yes, we had our own
           kind of customs where I came from.  Where I came from, this
           vehicle was considered to be a juju god, and it had been very
           offended to have that tree there in its way, and that I would
           have to sacrifice a goat, which would cost twenty shillings.
           And then I pulled out ten shillings, and asked, "To whom do I
           give the ten shillings, and who will be giving me the twenty
           shillings?"  There was such a silence that I feared I had made a
           mistake.  It was just deathly quiet.  And then, one man started
           laughing.  And with that, a few others laughed, and pretty soon
           everyone was laughing, they saw the joke.  No money changed
           hands, and we got out of there.
Harden:     I would also like to ask you: When you have lived like this in
           Africa, how you readjust to living in suburban U.S., with all
           the fast food, with all the affluence?
Foege:           It's an interesting experience to live overseas, and many
           people find it a great experience, because they have servants
           and they get privileges that they wouldn't have in the States.
           We didn't quite have that experience, having started out in a
           village, where living was very difficult, and much of your day
           was consumed in just boiling water.  We didn't have electricity,
           so we couldn't even have a fan to help deal with the heat.
           Despite these difficulties, it was hard to come back.
           Everything seems too easy to you when you return.  But there was
           a good part of this change.  When we were using many CDC people
           in India on ninety-day TDY projects, I got a letter from Don
           Millar, who was providing a lot of the people.  He said, "I
           don't know if they're helping you at all with smallpox
           eradication, but keep asking for them, because they come back
           different people.  They have now experienced what it's like to
           have real problems.  They don't put up with a lot of the things
           in the United States that cause problems.  They just steamroll
           over them."  So there are good points and bad points about
           coming back to the U.S.  Living overseas is a broadening
           experience, and I think it's so important for people to have
           that experience.  They come back with some difficulty, but they
           come back with a different perspective of how fortunate they
           have been.
Harden:     When zero pox was achieved in West Africa, the outside funds
           for the CDC efforts pretty much dried up, but Dave Sencer [David
           J. Sencer] was unwilling to let the program die.  He appointed
           you to be head, and sent you out to insure that the worldwide
           effort was going to be successful.  Can you tell me about this
           transition, and what actions you took?
Foege:           There were two things that happened after smallpox
           disappeared in West Africa.  First, we must remember that this
           was always a smallpox and measles program.  Measles was a major
           cause of death in West Africa, and it's interesting that USAID,
           the funders for the program, always referred to this as the
           measles/smallpox program.  The CDC always referred to it as
           smallpox/measles, not because smallpox was more important than
           measles, but because it was part of a global effort, and
           eradication was uppermost in our minds.  We believed that if we
           were not able to achieve eradication in West Africa, the global
           effort would most likely not succeed.  At the end, we assumed
           that USAID would see the benefit of continuing the measles part
           of this, because measles deaths had been greatly reduced,
           hospital beds that had been taken up by measles cases had now
           been freed up for other patients.  We had no idea at that time
           that they were being freed up for AIDS cases in the future, but
           that's what happened.  I was very surprised and shocked when
           USAID made a decision to stop the measles part of the program.
           It was very shortsighted to get West Africa accustomed to having
           measles vaccine available to reduce this terrible plague, and
           then to say, "We're going to stop the program.  Now you're on
           your own."  We tried very hard to get the measles program either
           continued or at least tapered off over sufficient period of
Harden:     Who made this decision?
Foege:           It was a decision, as far as I can tell, of one person at
           USAID, who was new, who didn't have an emotional commitment to
           the measles vaccine program and who wanted to do his own things.
            That made it extremely difficult, and as hard as we argued, we
           could not persuade him.  I actually wrote a letter for Dave
           Sencer's signature to go to the head of USAID, which hopefully
           would put some pressure on them to continue the program.  It
           went to someone in USAID, who sent it to me for a response.  And
           that's when I realized how much fun government could be, that
           you could write your own letter and respond to it, also.
                 The second thing that we did was to look at the rest of
           the world with an eye to smallpox eradication.  We were very
           concerned about India.  India turned out to have more intense
           smallpox than what we encountered in Africa, although we didn't
           realize it at the time.  India had had smallpox eradication
           efforts for decades, going back to the early 1800s.  But
           somehow, they never quite worked in India.  After discussing
           this with Dave Sencer, we made a decision that I would go to
           India for reconnaissance, to see whether it was possible to do a
           smallpox eradication project there.  In August and September of
           1973, I went to India and spent time with their Ministry of
           Health people and with people in the regional office for WHO
           [World Health Organization].   The result was that India turned
           out to be the site of our next smallpox eradication venture.
                 India was, in many ways, so much more difficult than
           anything we had faced in Africa.  The peak of smallpox in India
           was in May of 1974, when we had the highest rates that India had
           seen for decades.  They were much higher than anything we had
           suspected we would have.  In the fall of 1973, D.A. Henderson
           [Donald A. Henderson] asked me, "What's the largest number of
           cases that you can expect in any week in any one state next year
           in India?"  We did some calculations and decided it would be
           about 300 to 400.  He said, "Just to be sure, we're going to
           program our computers with four digits, and not with three.   I
           recall in May of 1974, having to call him and say that in Bihar,
           India, in one week, we had over 11,000 new cases of smallpox.  I
           mean, it was just overwhelming.   But we went from that high in
           May of 1974, to zero for the entire country of India in twelve
Harden:     Using the same surveillance/containment method?
Foege:           Using the same surveillance/containment, which many people
           did not think would work in India, because of the population
           density, and the high incidence of smallpox.  And yet, smallpox
           was eradicated in twelve months' time, once we got geared up to
           have really good surveillance.  I'm talking about surveillance
           that was so good that every three months, we would visit every
           house in India, looking for smallpox in a six-day period of
           time.  In six days, 100 million homes would be visited to see if
           there was anyone with smallpox.  And this was before computers.
           The logistics of trying to get people to 100 million homes in
           six days, and then finding, on evaluation, that over ninety
           percent of those homes had actually been visited, demonstrated
           the effectiveness of the Indian bureaucracy once they commit to
Harden:     That's very interesting.  So you were working with the Indians,
           then, and they were going into the homes.  That requires huge
           manpower and management resources.
Foege:           It required, in those six days' time, to mobilize lots and
           lots of the health workers, to take them off of other things for
           six days.  It also meant hiring a lot of day laborers in order
           to get the work force to do this.  For me, the interesting thing
           was that we did not have the government of India and WHO and
           other groups officially involved.  We worked so closely
           together, and I think part of the reason we were able to do that
           is, that we started traveling by train together.  This meant
           being together overnight in a compartment, which gave us the
           opportunity to talk in a way that we never would have by going
           into someone's office for an hour's meeting.  I mean, we were
           really in this together.
Harden:     What impact did your years in Africa and India, and the
           smallpox program in general, have on your family?
Foege:           I think the family saw our time in Africa and India as
           interesting times.  I mean, our children often look back on
           India as something they really enjoyed doing.  For birthdays,
           the person with the birthday gets to choose where we go for
           dinner, and inevitably, they want to go to an Indian restaurant.
            That's the way they feel about India.  I took one of my sons
           back to India when he was 18, when I attended a professional
           meeting there.  It was in Udhampur, and we decided, rather than
           fly down from New Delhi, that we would "experience" India again.
            We hired a car and a driver and began the thirteen-hour trip.
           This was in July, when it is very hot in India.  I recall, two
           hours into the trip, saying to myself, "This was a mistake."  It
           was so hot.  And of course the windows had to be open, because
           we didn't have air conditioning.  Diesel fumes from the exhaust
           and dust came in, and I looked over at my son, who had sweat
           rolling off his face, and I asked, "Michael, how are you doing?"
            He looked at me, and he said, "You'll crack before I do."  I
           mean, they just enjoyed India.  And it's given every one of them
           a feeling about the world that I like to see.  They are
           concerned about the developing world, they're concerned about
           the inequities that one sees in this country, and between this
           country and other countries.  It's something that I attribute to
           their having lived in other areas.
Harden:     Did any of them follow you into a medical career, or public
           service, or public health?
Foege:           Two of them are teachers, and I consider this to be even
           more difficult than doing public health work, because you don't
           get compensated well for your work as a teacher.  What we pay
           teachers is a crime.  The third one went into anthropology.  All
           of them have this feeling of concern about needing to help and
           understand other people.
Harden:     Before we stop, is there anything else that you would like to
Foege:           I see war around the world.  We have over a hundred
           conflicts going on at any one time.  But if you're not actually
           in the area, it's just a news story.  I think of what it was
           like during the Nigerian Civil War, the kind of devastation, and
           people starving.   People actually starved during that war.  I
           went back to work in the relief action.  I went into one town
           where you actually had to step over dead children as you walked
           down the street.  This is not the way the world should be, and
           yet we don't seem to learn.  How do you actually get people to
           make eye contact, to engage with this sort of thing?  For
           example, what's happening in Iraq right now shouldn't be
           happening at all.  How do you get people to understand that this
           is absolutely the wrong way for us to be living?
Harden:     Thank you for a very fine interview.