Monday, September 14, 2009

Smallpox: the Death of a Disease

D.A. Henderson’s detailed narrative of smallpox eradication added a personal dimension to the smallpox story, one that was not always present in other readings on the subject. Henderson recounts his years in the WHO from how he unexpectedly obtained a position at the organization, to years of frustrating bureaucratic interactions, and many adventures in far-flung corners of the globe. His determination and no-holds-barred attitude shine through in his writing.

I enjoyed Henderson’s descriptions of specific countries that posed challenges to eradication, especially cultural differences that affected the process. The inoculation of Muslim women in Afghanistan, for instance, illustrated the cultural, religious, political, and geographic boundaries eradication transcended. While insightful, I wished some of the bureaucratic and logistic details had been omitted as I think it would have made the pace of the book more in tune with the whirl-wind task of eradicating the disease in such a short time.

Most unsettling about his work, is Henderson’s conclusion that no other diseases can ever be eradicated. He points to the failure of polio campaigns, infrastructural challenges and funding problems as the basis for this conclusion. As the man who steered the smallpox program through many of the same challenges, this ending seems out of place. Henderson’s personal account shows how valuable a strong leader is in a world health campaign. Perhaps other eradication programs are simply awaiting the (serendipitous) arrival of their own D.A. Hendersons for their own successes to occur.

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