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Remembering Ciro de Quadros, Vaccines Champion

June 4, 2014
Dr. Ciro de Quadros, a global health leader and champion of immunization, passed away on Wednesday in Washington. He was 74.

Dr. de Quadros is most well-known for leading a vaccination campaign that eradicated polio in Latin America. As the director of the Pan American Health Organization in 1985, he began sending teams of health care workers to remote and often war-torn areas of 15 countries in the region to administer vaccines to children.

In 1991, Latin America reported the last case of polio, and the disease was declared eradiated in the region by 1994. Dr. de Quadros had previously helped with smallpox eradication efforts in Ethiopia – at a time of civil war. The last case of endemic smallpox was diagnosed and contained in neighboring Somalia in 1977.

The New York Times, reporting on the passing of Dr. de Quadros, spoke with Dr. Donald A. Henderson, who lead the W.H.O. campaign at the time:
In a phone interview on Friday, Dr. Henderson recalled Dr. de Quadros’s persistence in the midst of Ethiopia’s civil war as a half-dozen of his teams were kidnapped and one of his United Nations helicopters was commandeered with its pilot aboard. He helped negotiate the return of the health teams and the pilot, all of whom resumed their work in the field.

“That’s a measure of the dedication he inspired,” Dr. Henderson said. “Even that helicopter pilot” — who had vaccine aboard when he was hijacked — “vaccinated the rebels who held him.”

The Washington Post obituary recounts his famed diplomatic skills:
In several countries where there were wars or rebel insurgencies, he was able to persuade the combatants to lay down their arms in the cause of public health.

“Ciro met with rebel leaders from El Salvador in a bar in Georgetown,” Jon K. Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, recalled in an interview. “He said if you just stop fighting one day, it will benefit everybody. Ciro was a hero in that sense.”

Dr. de Quatros joined the Sabin Vaccine Institute in 2003, continuing to seek ways to eliminate infectious diseases globally. He worked up until about a month ago, according to the Washington Post. He will be sorely missed.