Hen­der­son and the tri­umph of sci­ence

Maryland Independent - - Community Forum -

At a time when Hil­lary Clin­ton gets ap­plause by declar­ing, “I be­lieve in sci­ence,” it’s worth tak­ing a mo­ment to re­mem­ber the life and achievements of Don­ald Ainslee Hen­der­son. All he did with sci­ence was erad­i­cate small­pox.

Dr. Hen­der­son died Fri­day at age 87 in Tow­son, not far from the Johns Hop­kins Uni­ver­sity Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, where he had been dean emer­i­tus. In the early 1960s, while work­ing for the Cen­ters for Dis­ease Con­trol, he and his team be­gan an am­bi­tious pro­gram to elim­i­nate small­pox in 18 African coun­tries.

At the time, “the red death” was killing two mil­lion peo­ple a year around the world. In ear­lier cen­turies, small­pox epi­demics had rav­aged the world’s con­ti­nents, strik­ing down peas­ants and po­ten­tates alike, wip­ing out en­tire pop­u­la­tions. In the late 18th cen­tury, an early form of vac­ci­na­tion with the re­lated cow­pox virus be­gan to show suc­cess in Europe and Amer­ica, but small­pox con­tin­ued un­abated in most of the world.

In 1965, the Soviet Union de­manded that the United Na­tions’ World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion do some­thing about it. The WHO, with the sort of bu­reau­cratic cau­tion that still plagues the U.N. to­day, was re­luc­tant to take on the job.

In an oral his­tory, Hen­der­son would re­call that WHO’s di­rec­tor gen­eral called the U.S. sur­geon gen­eral with a de­mand: “I want an Amer­i­can to run the pro­gram, be­cause when it goes down, when it fails, I want it to be seen that there is an Amer­i­can there, and the U.S. is re­ally re­spon­si­ble for this dread­ful thing that you have launched the World Health Or­ga­ni­za­tion into, and the per­son I want is Hen­der­son.”

Dr. Hen­der­son and his team did not fail. They suc­ceeded spec­tac­u­larly. By 1980, the dis­ease was de­clared gone from the face of the earth.

In his 2009 book, “Small­pox: The Death of a Dis­ease,” Dr. Hen­der­son re­called that it wasn’t just about de­feat­ing small­pox but about de­feat­ing the WHO bu­reau­cracy. When his team needed a sup­ply of vac­cine, it would ask the WHO for it but, an­tic­i­pat­ing long de­lays, also se­cured sup­plies through back chan­nels. By the time the WHO sup­ply came through two years later, the orig­i­nal out­break had been con­tained and the WHO sup­ply could be used else­where.

Dr. Hen­der­son was a “Sher­man tank of a hu­man be­ing — he sim­ply rolled over bu­reau­crats who got in his way,” the author Richard Pre­ston told The Wash­ing­ton Post. In 2002, a Repub­li­can pres­i­dent awarded Dr. Hen­der­son the Medal of Free­dom. To­day’s Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee touts dis­cred­ited stud­ies about the dan­gers of vac­cines. To­day the U.S. Congress fails to fund the CDC’s fight against the Zika virus. To­day, ac­knowl­edg­ing global warm­ing is op­tional.

Those who “be­lieve in sci­ence” must do as Dr. Hen­der­son did: Bull­doze the ob­sta­cles aside.

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