I was excited to read in this morning’s paper that one of my heroes will be awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Bill Foege is not well known like others named: Bob Dylan, Madeleine Albright, John Glenn, Toni Morrison. But he has arguably helped save more lives than any living person.
I got to know him when he served on the board of directors of Seeds, a magazine I edited in the 1980s. At that time, he headed The Carter Presidential Center and had already led in the eradication of smallpox. He had previously directed the CDC and later advised the Gates Foundation on health initiatives.
Back in the 1980s, UNICEF director James Grant approached Foege with a proposition: UNICEF and the World Health Organization may be able to get beyond their turf wars if a third party would chair the Task Force for Child Survival to help the world’s children. Foege agreed. The campaign focused on four approaches to reduce child deaths by half: tracking an infant’s monthly weight on a growth chart so a mother will know if he or she is not growing properly; oral rehydration therapy, a simple mixture of salt, sugar and water that saves the life of a child dehydrating from diarrhea; the promotion of breast feeding; and immunizations against six common diseases.
The campaign engaged every U.N. agency, every government in the world, faith-based communities and almost every sector of society. It immunized 80 percent of the world’s children and saved an estimated 12 million children in the 1980s alone. When they began, 40,000 children under age 5 died every day from mostly preventable diseases. Today that number has fallen to 29,000.
Just as important, the campaign showed what a unified global effort could accomplish.
For someone who spent a lifetime taking on diseases — small pox, river blindness, polio — Foege himself was, ironically, highly contagious. Every once in a while, I meet someone who has also brushed up against his passion and brilliance. As with me, he wildly raised their sense of what’s possible, encouraged them to not settle for lesser goals.
Before switching to a smart phone, for years I carried around a to-do list on paper. At the bottom were two quotes, I’d heard Bill say at meetings. So I’ll pass these on:
“There is a place for cynicism and pessimism. But whenever you need it, contract for it. Don’t get those people on your payroll.”
“Tenacity doesn’t always work, but it’s the only thing that does.”
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