Washington, DC, August 22, 2016 (PAHO/WHO) - The Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO) mourns the passing of Dr. Donald "DA" Henderson, the American epidemiologist who headed the overall efforts of the World Health Organization (WHO) that led to the eradication of smallpox in 1980.
Henderson died on 19 August at a palliative care center in Towson, Maryland, from complications of a hip fracture, said his daughter, Leigh Henderson. He was 87 years old.
"Henderson's leadership and contributions have helped save thousands of lives around the world," said Francisco Becerra, Assistant Director of the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), WHO Regional Office for the Americas. "He was a model for many public health professionals and a great supporter of vaccines," he added.
Henderson worked for the United States' Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and for WHO. He was Dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and presidential advisor on bioterrorism.
As chief of the WHO Smallpox Eradication Program from 1966 to 1977, he helped eradicate the disease through an historic global surveillance and vaccination campaign. The last case of naturally acquired smallpox occurred in 1977 in Somalia, interrupting a transmission chain at least 3,000 years old. In 1980, after an extensive process of confirmation by 79 countries around the world, the World Health Assembly declared smallpox to have been eradicated.
Smallpox is an ancient disease caused by the smallpox virus. Initial symptoms include high fever and fatigue. The virus then produces a characteristic rash, especially on the face, arms, and legs. The resulting bumps are filled with clear liquid and later, pus, then forming a crust that finally dries and falls off. Smallpox was fatal in up to 30% of cases.
In 2010, during an event at PAHO in Washington, D.C., marking the 30th anniversary of the eradication of the disease, Henderson said: "Never before had a disease been eradicated. The human race was finally free of a scourge that had mutilated, blinded, and killed since the dawn of history. Lest we forget, this was a disease more feared than any pestilence or plague, whether yellow fever, bubonic plague, or cholera."
In 1971, the Americas became the first world region to eliminate smallpox. The last case in the region occurred that year in Brazil. Henderson also contributed to this regional achievement.
"In the fight against smallpox there are hundreds of anonymous heroes, but D.A. Henderson was a fundamental one in achieving that success," said Cuauhtémoc Ruiz Matus, chief of PAHO's Expanded Program on Immunization (EPI). Ruiz Matus also recognized Henderson's important role as president of PAHO's Technical Advisory Group (TAG) on Immunization, where he made recommendations on advancing toward the elimination of poliomyelitis in the Americas, a success achieved in 1994.
Henderson, together with Brazilian epidemiologist Ciro de Quadros, founder of the EPI and one of the central figures in polio eradication in Latin America and the Caribbean, "are two major public health heroes to whom we will be everlastingly grateful," said Ruiz Matus.
In 2002, Henderson received the Public Health Hero Award, PAHO's highest distinction, for his invaluable contributions to improving the health and well-being of the people of the Western Hemispher