February 15, 2011
Shortly after Bill Gates’ “Polio and the Power of Vaccines” event last month, Dr. D.A. Henderson—who led the World Health Organization’s global smallpox eradication campaign from 1966-1977—publicly expressed disapproval of polio eradication efforts. In the following piece by New York Times reporter Donald McNeil Jr., Dr. Henderson explains why he changed his opinion after a conversation with Sabin Executive Vice President Dr. Ciro de Quadros.
Two weeks ago, at the end of an interview about whether polio really can be eradicated, Bill Gates muttered aloud to an aide escorting the interviewer: “I’ve got to get my D. A. Henderson response down better.”
By that he meant that as long as he was committing his fortune and prestige to the battle against polio — as he did that day in an announcement at the former Manhattan home of Franklin D. Roosevelt — he would need a stronger riposte to journalists quoting Dr. Henderson’s powerful arguments that the virus is just too elusive to subdue.
In a world of quotable medical experts, why does it matter what one particular expert thinks? Because, for better or worse, the mantle has been wrapped around the venerable 82-year-old Donald A. Henderson that he is “The Man Who Wiped Out Smallpox.”
(In truth, the smallpox fight — the only successful one so far against a human illness — had many generals. One is Dr. William H. Foege, 74, a former director of the Centers for Disease Control who is now a senior adviser to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and who fervently believes that polio can be eradicated. But over the years, Dr. Henderson has patiently explained his doubts, in persuasive detail, to many medical journalists calling him with questions about any disease eradication effort.)
What neither Mr. Gates nor the reporter interviewing him knew was that Dr. Henderson had changed his mind two days before.
“I see as much greatly augmented the probability that we can stop wild polio virus,” he said Wednesday in a follow-up interview — the opposite conclusion to the one he had given to the same reporter on Jan. 26, five days before the Gates interview.
“I apologize,” he added. “It’s not my wont to turn on a dime like this. I don’t think I’ve done anything like this before.”
What changed his mind, he said, was a conversation with Dr. Ciro de Quadros on Jan. 29.