Epidemic: The Tata Way

by | Sep 26, 2023 | Health

In June 1974, epidemiologist Larry Brilliant appeared in TISCO News, published by Tata Steel, talking with fellow smallpox eradication workers. The left image’s caption reads: “Vaccination without pricks. A jet gun (seen above), which was also used in the campaign, could give 500 to 700 vaccinations an hour.” The right image’s caption reads: “Preparing for the fight, Dr. Brilliant (second from right) of WHO, and Dr. P.B. Bhorucha (third from right) and others discuss the strategy for the smallpox eradication campaign.” ( TISCO News Volume 22: Number 3, June 1974, page 114)

Men wait at the entrance to Tata Steel in Jamshedpur, also known as Tatanagar, in a photo taken sometime between 1934 and 1969. Tata was, and still is, a powerful conglomerate of dozens of businesses, from steel, iron, and locomotives, to telecommunications and aerospace. “When you thought of Tatanagar, the Tatas, in those days, you thought of wealth, power, modernity, cleanliness, all of those things,” says Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist who worked on the World Health Organization’s smallpox eradication team during the Tatanagar outbreak in 1974. (The American Geographical Society Library, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries)

In spring 1974, over a dozen smallpox outbreaks sprang up throughout the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh. Determined to find the source of the cases, American smallpox eradication worker Larry Brilliant and a local partner, Zaffar Hussain, launched an investigation. 

The answer: Each outbreak could be traced back to Tatanagar, a city run by one of India’s largest corporations, the Tata Group. 

When Brilliant arrived at the Tatanagar Railway Station, he was horrified by what he saw: people with active cases of smallpox purchasing train tickets. The virus was spreading out of control. 

Brilliant knew that to stop the outbreak at its source, he would need the support of the company that ran the city. But he wasn’t optimistic the Tata Group would help. 

Still, he had to try. So, Brilliant tracked down a Tata executive and knocked on his door in the middle of the night. 

Brilliant’s message: “Your company is sending death all over the world. You’re the greatest exporter of smallpox in history.” 

In summer 2022, “Epidemic” podcast host Céline Gounder visited the Tatanagar Railway Station, which Larry Brilliant and other smallpox eradication workers discovered was a hub of a major outbreak in 1974. The station is a busy center for travelers, food vendors, and passenger and cargo trains.(Céline Gounder/KFF Health News)

Much to his surprise, the leaders of Tata listened. 

Episode 5 of “Eradicating Smallpox” explores the unique partnership between the Tata Group and the campaign to end the virus. This collaboration between the private and public sector, domestic and international, proved vital in the fight to eliminate smallpox. 

To conclude the episode, host Céline Gounder speaks with NBA commissioner Adam Silver and virologist David Ho about the basketball league’s unique response to covid-19 — “the bubble” — and the essential role businesses can play in public health. “We need everyone involved,” Ho said, “from government, to academia, to the private sector.”

The Host:

In Conversation With Céline Gounder:

Voices From the Episode:

Click to open the trans …

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