Task Force at 40: The Task Force in the 1980s

In 1980, the world was declared free of smallpox – the only human disease ever to be eradicated. The successful strategy was orchestrated by Dr. Bill Foege, who served as director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) until 1983. Near the end of his CDC tenure, global health leaders brought forth a critical issue: every day thousands of children in the world’s poorest nations were dying from preventable diseases like measles, polio, and diphtheria, despite available vaccines that successfully protected children in wealthier countries. 

On March 14, 1984, a group of 34 health experts gathered at the Rockefeller Foundation center in Bellagio, Italy. Attendees included Jonas Salk, developer of the first polio vaccine, and representatives from the World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, United Nations Development Programme, the World Bank, the Rockefeller Foundation and other agencies. There, they launched The Task Force for Child Survival to accelerate the pace of childhood immunizations. Based in Atlanta, with Dr. Foege at the helm, the non-profit was set up as an affiliate of Emory University, with two other employees, Bill Watson and Carol Walters, both former CDC staffers, and a $500,000 budget.

The five sponsoring agencies saw that The Task Force could provide a forum for them to plan cooperative immunization efforts, act as a catalyst for country efforts, and be a resource for activities that were difficult for agencies to do on their own or jointly. Foege later said The Task Force could do things within days that would have required months of negotiation if each agency had needed to be involved.

The Task Force for Child Survival is founded at the Bellagio conference in Italy by former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Bill Foege and his colleagues Carol Walters and Bill Watson, with the specific goal of raising low childhood immunization rates in developing countries. The Task Force’s founding partners were the World Health Organization, UNICEF, Rockefeller Foundation, The World Bank, and the United Nations Development Programme. Photo courtesy of The Task Force for Global Health.

Within just six years, The Task Force partners had delivered: four times as many children (80 percent) had received at least one vaccine. This dramatic increase was declared the “largest peacetime achievement that the world had ever seen” by the head of UNICEF at the September 1990 World Summit for Children. In this unprecedented event at the United Nations headquarters in New York, heads of state from 71 countries gathered to pledge continued support for child survival and development.

The Task Force’s success drew the attention of others with bold goals for saving and improving lives.

WHO, tropical medicine scientists, and the Rockefeller Foundation’s head of health had been advocating for greater investment in diseases deemed “neglected” because they primarily afflict the world’s poorest people. These Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs) blind and disfigure, stunt children’s development, and cause stigma and social isolation. One example, found mainly in Africa, is river blindness (also known as onchocerciasis), a parasitic disease spread by the bites of blackflies that breed near water, which causes visual impairment, severe itching and skin disfigurement. 

The pharmaceutical company Merck & Co., Inc., had a drug to treat and prevent river blindness (onchocerciasis) and sought a partner to get the medicine to those who needed it. In 1987, Merck and The Task Force established the Mectizan Donation Program (MDP) to reach people in affected areas through large-scale community gatherings known as “mass drug administration.” MDP later expanded to include treatment donated by GSK which, when given with Merck’s medicine, helps eliminate a disease that can coexist with river blindness – lymphatic filariasis (which can cause elephantiasis, extreme swelling of the limbs).

As of 2023, MDP had shipped 13 billion Mectizan tablets, working with partners in 58 countries in Africa, Latin America, the Caribbean, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and the Western Pacific. Four countries (Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico) have eliminated river blindness; three countries (Malawi, Togo and Yemen) have eliminated LF; and others are making significant progress toward eliminating those diseases.

President Carter and Dr. Roy Vagelos, the Merck & Co., Inc. CEO who decided to donate Mectizan, in Chad in 1994 when The Carter Center added river blindness elimination to its health programs. Photo credit: Bill Van Der Decker

This Task Force model paved the way for subsequent partnerships, including work with Pfizer to eliminate blinding trachoma and Johnson & Johnson and GSK to control intestinal worms, resulting in billions of dollars worth of donations of essential medicines for neglected tropical diseases and other infectious diseases.

In 1988 another milestone occurred when WHO member countries pledged to eradicate polio. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) involves many partners, including national governments, WHO, CDC, Rotary International, UNICEF, the Gates Foundation and others. The Task Force has contributed to polio eradication in several ways, beginning in 1994. 

To learn what happened next check out our 40-year timeline or read next month’s issue of Dispatches, which will cover the 90s. 

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