Saturday, August 7, 2010

Guest Lecture by the Eradicator of Smallpox


Learning from a Living Legend

In 1796, the British Scientist Edward Jenner documented the first successful example of inoculating a person to prevent future disease. In this case, he used cowpox to protect against smallpox - an infectious diseased credibly traced back to ancient Egyptian mummies 3000 years ago. Jenner would call his work a vaccine (after the Latin word for cow - vacca), but it wasn't until 180 years later that US epidemiologist D.A Henderson led the global effort that eradicated smallpox from Earth.

A disease that plagued man all over the Earth for thousands of years was no more, surviving only in government labs in Russia and the US. The feat can be considered the golden point of science in the 20th century. D.A. Henderson's work garnered him the US Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Japan Prize, and Knighthood by the King of Thailand. Below I've listed three points that I found as takeaway messages from his guest lecture to my "Making Change through Policy Course"

1. Finding a Way
In countless examples, Dr Henderson mixed creativity or found exceptions to the rule to achieve results. After learning less than 10% of global vaccines met quality standards, Dr Henderson was told he could not mandate quality control ("it won't work"). Instead, Dr Henderson withheld World Health Organization funding unless vaccines met third party quality control standards. It wasn't a mandate, but it was one heck of an incentive.

2. Science and Evidence Trump Experts and Textbooks
There were four key examples in which Dr. Henderson and his team had to buck the stated norm or thoughts at the time. In each they set up experiments and tests to use science as their evidence against the textbooks. Each played a vital role in proving Smallpox could be eradicated. The first was proving smallpox did not spread easily meaning a vaccine campaign could work. The second was revaccination wasn't needed - a one time dose could work saving money, time, attrition, and follow up efforts. The third, smallpox wasn't stable in nature, thus eliminating it from humans could eradicate it.

3. Managing Guidelines
- Recruit good people who want a challenge
- Delegate authority and responsibility
- Adapt program to the individual country
- Get out from the desk (he mandated 1/3 time in field)
- Communicate regularly and frequently
- Harmonize practices
- Exceptions are necessary

I invite classmates to share any lessons learned or comments from the D.A. Henderson Lecture. What did you think?

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