In the Company of Rock Stars, and the President

Emory's Bill Foege receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom

Highest civilian honor: Emory's Bill Foege accepts the Presidential Medal of Freedom for his public health work, including his contribution to smallpox eradication.
Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

Singer Bob Dylan and author Toni Morrison looked on resplendently, Dylan in shades and Morrison in dreads, as President Barack Obama welcomed the Presidential Medal of Freedom recipients to the White House ceremony. “This is the highest civilian honor this country can bestow, which is ironic, because nobody sets out to win it,” Obama said. “No one ever picks up a guitar, or fights a disease, or starts a movement, thinking, ‘You know what, if I keep this up, in 2012, I could get a medal in the White House . . . ’ What sets these men and women apart is the incredible impact they have had on so many people—not in short, blinding bursts, but steadily, over the course of a lifetime.”

Fighting disease is, indeed, the reason Emory Presidential Distinguished Professor of International Health Bill Foege, former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), received one of thirteen Presidential Medals of Freedom bestowed this year. Foege is credited with leading the eradication of smallpox.

“In the 1960s, more than two million people died from smallpox every year. Just over a decade later, that number was zero—two million to zero, thanks, in part, to Bill Foege,” said Obama. “As a young medical missionary working in Nigeria, Bill helped develop a vaccination strategy that would later be used to eliminate smallpox from the face of the Earth. And when that war was won, he moved on to other diseases, always trying to figure out what works.”

Foege’s method for battling smallpox, called “surveillance and containment,” involved vaccinating only those people who were in danger of acquiring the virus, thereby staying one step ahead of the disease.

Through his work at the CDC, The Carter Center, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Foege has taken on challenges from infectious diseases to childhood survival, with logic and perseverance.

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