Smallpox is the only disease ever to have been eradicated. But, Denise Johnson is working to add polio to the list. For the past four years, she has played a leading role at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Polio Eradication Branch—a federal agency whose goal is nothing less than the worldwide eradication of polio by 2008.
Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by a virus. It invades the nervous system, and can cause total paralysis in a matter of hours. In the most severe cases, it can lead to death by asphyxiation, but more often it causes paralysis in the legs, a condition that afflicted President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Polio can strike at any age, but half of those afflicted are children under three. Large polio epidemics caused panics in the U.S. and Western Europe in the 1940s and 1950s, but it has since been eradicated in all but seven African and south Asian countries: India, Nigeria, Egypt, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia and Niger. Denise Johnson is trying to finish the job.
Johnson’s effective leadership of the Polio Eradication Branch—and its diverse staff of 43 professionals in 17 countries and Atlanta—guarantees help for those most at risk. She has managed more than $300 million in grants and the purchase of 600 million doses of polio vaccine. Recognizing that the fight against polio can’t be won solely by what she accomplishes in her Atlanta office, she has served as a field consultant offering technical and operational advice to CDC and World Health Organization (WHO) staff working in potential hotspots, including Zimbabwe, Ethiopia and India.
Under Johnson’s direction, the Branch has worked closely with WHO and UNICEF to undertake polio immunization campaigns in developing countries, helping those United Nations organizations immunize over 500 million children in 93 countries.
Johnson was recruited to the Branch from the CDC’s Family and Intimate Partner Violence Prevention program. She was the architect and manager of that program for six years, but was convinced to join the Polio Eradication Branch by Robert Keegan, deputy director of the CDC’s Global Immunization Division. “She’s not the kind of employee that has to look for work,” he said. “I had to convince her that this was a more exciting place.” Why did Keegan want Johnson to join the Branch? “If you do a good job keeping women and children from being beaten, you can eradicate polio,” he said.
Just fifteen years ago, there were 350,000 cases of polio in 125 countries. Last year, 1,919 people were afflicted in seven countries. Thanks to Denise Johnson, that number will soon be zero and humankind will never again have to dread another polio epidemic.