To Bill Foege, ’61, people are more important than numbers

Dr. Bill Foege, ’61, is a global health leader, affiliate professor of epidemiology at the UW School of Public Health, and recipient of a 2012 Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Dr. Bill Foege, former director of the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), was instrumental in eradicating smallpox. A 1961 UW Medical School graduate, he was part of the first generation of students after the school opened in 1946.

As CDC director, Foege oversaw health crises such as the AIDS epidemic. “On average, there is a newly recognized infectious disease every year that surprises us and there is every reason to believe that will continue.

“The scope of the global health community has to increase beyond infectious diseases to include more chronic diseases plaguing us such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

“There is no place that isn’t local and global simultaneously. Things don’t happen in isolation and we need to see the world as an organic whole. It’s the idea of a butterfly in Indonesia causing a tornado someplace else.”

He witnessed tragedies during his years in Africa such as widespread famine. “You shouldn’t have to step over the bodies of children who died from hunger.

“You have to be an optimist to work in global health. There are many days of discouragement, so you can’t already be a pessimist. I’m still an optimist because of the changes I’ve seen. Smallpox was eradicated, measles occurs in low numbers—we keep improving what’s possible.”

Success stories fuel his hopefulness. “I returned to a Nigerian village looking for a woman treated for tuberculosis. She came bounding from a house and leapt into my arms. That was a case of seeing someone who actually benefited from the science we had to offer.”

Do vaccines cause autism? “There have been costly studies that prove it’s not true. We in the health field obviously need to do a better job of communicating those facts. The State of Washington has reason to understand the importance of vaccinations with the recent pertussis (whooping cough) outbreak.

“These things come back to hurt us when parents decide not to have their children immunized.”

Humanity and health care are synonymous for Foege. “I emphasized (at the CDC) that we should always remember that there are faces behind the graphs and numbers. We can’t become blind to why we do this work.”

Foege was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2012, but feels “the work itself is the biggest award” because it impacts future generations such as his three grandchildren.

“When my grandson was seven years old, he asked, ‘What do you think is the most important thing we can do to make the world better?’ My answer was with every decision, think of the implications for your grandchildren.”