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August 15, 2023 18 mins

In 1973, Bhakti Dastane arrived in Bihar, India, to join the smallpox eradication campaign. She was a year out of medical school and had never cared for anyone with the virus. She believed she was offering something miraculous, saving people from a deadly disease. But some locals did not see it that way.

Episode 3 of “Eradicating Smallpox” explores what happened when public health workers — driven by the motto “zero pox!” — encountered hesitation. These anti-smallpox warriors wanted to achieve 100% vaccination, and they wanted to get there fast. Fueled by that urgency, their tactics were sometimes aggressive — and sometimes, crossed the line.

“I learned about being overzealous and not treating people with respect,” said Steve Jones, another eradication worker based in Bihar in the early ’70s.

To close out the episode, host Céline Gounder speaks with NAACP health researcher Sandhya Kajeepeta about the reverberations of using coercion to achieve public health goals. Kajeepeta’s work documents inequities in the enforcement of covid-19 mandates in New York City.

In Conversation With Host Céline Gounder:

  • Sandhya Kajeepeta - Epidemiologist and senior researcher with the NAACP’s Thurgood Marshall Institute.  

Voices From the Episode:

  • Bhakti Dastane  
    Gynecologist and former World Health Organization smallpox eradication program worker in Bihar, India.
  • Steve Jones  
    Physician-epidemiologist and former smallpox eradication campaign worker in India, Bangladesh, and Somalia. 
  • Sanjoy Bhattacharya 
    Medical historian and professor of medical and global health histories at the University of Leeds. 

Find a transcript of this episode here.

“Epidemic” is a co-production of KFF Health News and Just Human Productions.  

To hear other KFF Health News podcasts, click here.

Subscribe to “Epidemic” on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, Pocket Casts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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