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September 26, 2023 24 mins

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.”

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.”

In Conversation With Host Céline Gounder:

  • Adam Silver
    Commissioner of the NBA
  • David Ho
    Director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center

Voices From the Episode:

  • Larry Brilliant
    Former World Health Organization smallpox eradication worker in India


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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