Honoring Global Public Health Leader Ralph ‘Rafe’ Henderson, 1937 to 2022

In April, the global public health community lost a dedicated public health advocate, leader, mentor, friend and colleague, Dr. Ralph ‘Rafe’ Henderson (1937 to 2022). The Task Force will deeply miss our longtime colleague and friend and we send our condolences to all Henderson’s loved ones.

A champion of the smallpox eradication effort in the 1970s and trailblazer of immunization systems for most of his career, Henderson held highly revered roles such as Assistant Surgeon General in the United States Public Health Service and the World Health Organization (WHO)’s Assistant Director-General which reflected the deep respect he garnered from many of his peers and colleagues.

“Rafe’s contributions to the health of the world’s children were extraordinary,” said Dr. Alan Hinman, retired director of CDC’s National Center for Prevention Services (1998-1995) and current senior advisor to The Task Force. “Rafe and I arrived at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the same day in July 1965, as new EIS officers. Rafe was brilliant, thoughtful, humble, and gentle, and had a great sense of humor. He was a public health hero and a good friend.”

Dr. Henderson in the early days of his U.S. CDC career. Photo courtesy of U.S. CDC.

In 1966, Henderson became the Deputy-Director of the Lagos, Nigeria Regional Office for the Smallpox Eradication/Measles Control Program of West and Central Africa where he pioneered assessment techniques for smallpox which supported the successful eradication of the disease in the region. Thanks to his creativity and determination, he is heralded as one of the pioneers of the smallpox eradication effort.

Fellow smallpox eradication pioneer Dr. Bill Foege, Task Force co-founder and Henderson’s friend, once described Henderson as “low key in his affable approach to people, but he had an absolute intensity when pursuing an objective that he desired.”

Henderson also has a close personal connection to The Task Force’s history and work. 

In 1984, Henderson joined Foege and the small group that founded The Task Force during a meeting in Bellagio, Italy where The Task Force was assembled to raise child immunization rates globally. Within six years, Henderson had contributed to The Task Force’s success in increasing childhood immunization rates from 20%-80%, preventing an estimated three million unnecessary child deaths every year. 

Among his many accomplishments, one that is not so well publicized is the hands-on role Henderson played in helping to create the Global Programme to Eliminate Lymphatic Filariasis (LF), a neglected tropical disease (NTD) targeted by the WHO. It was one of the first programs to utilize mass drug administrations (MDA) as a public health tool that treats entire at-risk populations to eliminate and prevent infection.

Through his focus on NTDs, he  advised various Task Force programs and initiatives including the former Lymphatic Filariasis Support Center (now the Neglected Tropical Diseases Support Center, NTD-SC) with the aim to eliminate LF. Friend and colleague Dr. Eric Ottesen, former director of NTD-SC and the former LF Support Center, remembers the informal round-table Henderson voluntarily organized to address the most challenging epidemiologic problems the WHO was facing in support of national MDA programs. Ottesen recalled that once  each month, or whenever needed, for almost a decade, Henderson and his wife and professional colleague Ilze Henderson welcomed the round-table participants into their home (which Ottesen called “clubhouse”) to tackle these challenges.

“Rafe’s affable but no nonsense style, his penetrating intellect and the focus on usually a single real-world challenge in each meeting provided not only the solutions for many practical problems facing MDA programs globally but also served as a basis for numerous WHO consensus documents, guidelines and journal publications supporting all aspects of implementing MDA programs,” said Ottesen. “This all-volunteer, post-vaccine phase of his highly successful epidemiology career is a significant part of his global health legacy.”

Most recently Henderson  spoke at The Task Force’s January 2021 symposium “The Power of Partnership: Defeating Onchocerciasis” (watch video of his remarks) about the WHO’s work to support the control and elimination of onchocerciasis, another NTD infection that benefits from MDAs.

To learn more about Henderson’s life, read his memoir titled Immunising the Children of the World.

Header photo: Dr. Ralph ‘Rafe’ Henderson. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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