Physician and public health leader Mahendra Dutta (left) used his political savvy to help usher in a transformative smallpox vaccination strategy across India. He died in 2020.
His son Yogesh Parashar (right), a pediatrician, explains how his father straddled two worlds of India’s smallpox eradication program — the field and the bureaucracy. Host Céline Gounder met with Parashar in August 2022 to learn about Dutta’s history. (Voice of Faridabad (left); Céline Gounder / KFF Health News (right))
“Search and containment” was a transformative vaccination strategy that helped end smallpox. Teams of eradication workers visited communities across India to track down active cases of smallpox. Whenever they found a case, health workers would isolate the infected person then vaccinate anyone that individual might have come in contact with. In this image, health workers vaccinate a man in the state of Bihar, India, in 1974. (Santosh BASAK/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)
By the mid-1970s, India’s smallpox eradication campaign had been grinding for over a decade. But the virus was still spreading beyond control. It was time to take a new, more targeted approach.
In the early 1960s, nearly 60% of all reported smallpox cases in the world were in India. To bring the virus under control, in 1962 India created the National Smallpox Eradication Program with the goal of vaccinating its entire population. In this image, people line up outside a vaccination station in a village near Madras, now Chennai, waiting to get their dose. (P. Sharma / World Health Organization )
This strategy was called “search and containment.” Teams of eradication workers visited communities across India to track down active cases of smallpox. Whenever they found a case, health workers would isolate the infected person then vaccinate anyone that individual might have come in contact with.
Search and containment looked great on paper. Implementing it on the ground took the leadership of someone who knew the ins and outs of public health in India.
Episode 2 of “Eradicating Smallpox” tells the story of Mahendra Dutta, an Indian physician and public health worker who used his political savvy and local knowledge to pave the way to eradication. Dutta’s contributions were vital to the eradication campaign, but his story has rarely been told outside India. To conclude the episode, host Céline Gounder and epidemiologist Madhukar Pai discuss “decolonizing public health,” a movement to put leaders from the most affected communities in the driver’s seat to make decisions about global health.
In Conversation With Céline Gounder:
Voices From the Episode:
Click to open the transcript
Transcript: Do You Know Dutta?
Podcast Transcript Epidemic: “Eradicating Smallpox” Season 2, Episode 2: Do You Know Dutta? Air date: Aug. 1, 2023
Editor’s note: If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio of “Epidemic,” which includes emotion and emphasis not found in the transcript. This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity. Please use the transcript as a tool but check the corresponding audio …