Global Health, Leadership, and Politics: Perspectives from Bill Foege

Global health luminary and The Task Force’s co-founder, Bill Foege, said public health leaders must be involved in the political process if they are to positively impact decisions made by government.

“Every public health decision is based on some sort of political decision. You can’t separate them, and therefore we must understand how the political process works,” he said.

Foege was at The Task Force this month to speak about leadership and global health, and discuss his new book about The Task Force’s history.

A towering figure in global health – literally, as well — Foege, MD, MPH, said optimism, integrity and cultural sensitivity are essential qualities of effective global health teams. “The fuel of global health is optimism,” he noted.

Foege, who also served as director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, is perhaps best known for developing the surveillance and containment strategies that resulted in the eradication of smallpox, the only human disease that has been wiped out worldwide.

During his visit, Foege described the many memorable moments in his long career with characteristic humility, using a mix of humor and personal anecdotes to engage a rapt audience. He reflected on his experiences with immunization and the importance of moving quickly – when needed – to implement treatment strategies that could help eradicate a disease.

“Everything we face has a history, and everything we do has a future,” he said, noting that progress in global health can quickly be stalled – and in some cases, undone – by political turmoil, natural disaster, or conflict.

Foege is known for his ability to bring people together to solve large-scale public health problems including raising global immunization rates – the mission that spurred the formation of The Task Force. He said the key to effective coalitions is when members “agree on the outcomes, not on next steps.”

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