In Memoriam: D.A. Henderson, MD
Dr. Donald “D.A.” Henderson, who led the international effort to eradicate smallpox, died August 19 at age 87. Sabin joins a global community of colleagues, health care workers, partners and admirers in celebrating the life of Dr. Henderson, one of the most influential global public health figures of the century. Among his honors and awards are the first Albert B. Sabin Gold Medal Award in 1994 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2002.
As an official of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, Dr. Henderson was selected to lead the global smallpox eradication effort of the World Health Organization (WHO), launched in 1966.
Vanquishing one of the world's most devastating diseases was no small task. Described as a “medical moonshot,” some WHO officials were reluctant to embark on such an ambitious effort, certain that it was impossible. Then Director-General of WHO, Marcolino Gomes Candau, demanded that an American run the program so its failure would reflect poorly on the United States and not solely WHO. Dr. Henderson initially declined the position.
Despite the odds, the campaign succeeded in just over a decade by attempting to identify every case of smallpox and vaccinating everyone exposed, a strategy known as ring vaccination. Using a freeze-dried vaccine that could withstand higher temperatures administered by either jet injectors or by putting a drop on a bifurcated needle and pricking the skin, the campaign succeeded in eradicating smallpox around the world, region by region, country by country.
In a 2008 interview, Dr. Henderson said, “At our Geneva headquarters, there were only nine of us and we never had more than 150 international staff in the field. We served primarily as catalysts, as it was the countries themselves that actually did the job, that took an interest in the program and that became increasingly enthusiastic and committed.”
Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of WHO, said of Dr. Henderson, “D.A. was a giant, in stature, intellect, and achievements, but also a deeply courteous person with brilliant diplomatic skills.”
“D.A. was an adviser to three presidents and a national leader in emergency preparedness,” said Retired Major General Philip K. Russell, a member of Sabin’s board of trustees. “D.A. founded the Center for Biosecurity, later the UPMC Center for Health Security, which has provided critically-needed policy guidance for the nation. After September 11 he was asked to return to government service by Secretary Thompson and he organized and headed the Office of Emergency Preparedness at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. He led a major effort to prepare the nation to meet infectious disease emergencies. It was great pleasure to work for such an inspiring leader.”
Dr. Henderson inspired several generations of epidemiologists and global public health workers.
The late Ciro de Quadros, Executive Vice President of Sabin and Director of the Vaccine Advocacy and Education program, helped organize the smallpox eradication effort in Ethiopia from 1970 to 1977 after being recruited by Dr. Henderson.
Jon Andrus, Executive Vice President of Sabin and Director of the Vaccine Advocacy and Education program, worked for Ciro de Quadros at the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) to eradicate polio in the Americas. He remembers, "D.A. was chair of the PAHO Technical Advisory Group in 1989. I remember how graciously he recognized Ciro's leadership contribution to polio eradication in the Americas. As a young epidemiologist, I was incredibly blessed to have had the chance to work with D.A. He always valued hard work in the field. I remember how much it meant to Ciro to hear D.A.'s words of acknowledgement. D.A. had this incredible capacity to motivate his teams."
Sabin’s Peter Carrasco, director of the International Association of Immunization Managers, worked with Dr. Henderson in the 1970s in Ethiopia, Bangladesh and Somalia. He recalled, “After smallpox was eradicated, D.A. was asked what disease would be next. His response? ‘Bad management.’”
In Dr. Henderson’s own words:
“The most important legacy of smallpox eradication was its demonstration of how many people could be protected through vaccination, so rapidly and inexpensively with a well-planned program and quality-control monitoring. This is what led us to organize the first meeting that would propose an Expanded Program on Immunization and which, in turn, led to the polio eradication campaign and a rapidly growing global interest in immunization as a highly cost-effective program worthy of investment by every country.”
When the Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI) was created, only 20 percent of children were vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Thanks to EPI programs in countries around the world, 86 percent of children are now protected from these deadly diseases and polio is endemic in just two countries.