To hear Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter tell it, they weren’t necessarily the most deserving people in the room on Wednesday night.
In a glittering dinner and ceremony held at the Delta Flight Museum, the Carters jointly received the second annual Bill Foege Global Health Award. Presented by Georgia-based MAP International, the award honors people and organizations that have contributed significantly to “the progress of global health.”
There were two standing ovations from a crowd that included honorary co-chairs Ted Turner and Henry Aaron, as well as leaders of Atlanta’s business, philanthropic, education and health communities.
But what the honorees really wanted to talk about were the people behind the prestigious award -- including the man who apparently had to be convinced to have it it named for him.
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“I first knew about Bill Foege when he devised a way to do away with smallpox, which by the way happened when I was president,” Jimmy Carter, 93, said with a grin. “I didn’t have anything to do with it. But I did have a chance to appoint the director of the CDC. And I appointed Bill Foege.”
At 82, Foege is considered a hero in the global health community and the person most responsible for eradicating smallpox worldwide. A 2012 winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 6-foot-7 Foege memorably underscored for the audience that there was no more worthy choice for this honor than the Carters.
“Mark Twain wrote that a compliment can keep you alive for a week,” Foege said in his introduction of the former first couple. “If you gave me enough time at this lectern, I could make them immortal.”
As co-founders of the Atlanta-based Carter Center, the Plains natives were selected for their for their contributions in combating diseases in Africa and Latin America and restoring global health.
And much like Foege, the Carters and their namesake institution have the total eradication of another disease squarely in their sights. For some three decades, the Carter Center has led the international campaign to wipe out guinea worm disease, a painfully debilitating parasitic condition which occurs when people ingest larvae in unclean water.
Jimmy Carter, 93, has said he hopes to outlive the last guinea worm on earth. In March, it was announced at The Carter Center that South Sudan has stopped transmission of Guinea worm disease in that African nation. That means there are now just 30 reported cases of guinea worm disease in only two countries -- down from approximately 3.5 million cases found in 21 countries back in 1986, when The Carter Center began its efforts.
Some 700 people attended the dinner, which unfolded against a backdrop of planes and historic flight artifacts in the onetime hanger-turned-museum: “Our living room,” was how Delta CEO Ed Bastian, who served as the event’s co-chair along with Martha Brooks of Atlanta-based CARE USA, described the setting.
The evening felt especially meaningful as a celebration of the unique partnership of the Carters, who have been married for nearly 72 years and have worked side-by-side for decades on everything from building Habitat for Humanity houses to promoting peace and fighting disease and mental illness in some of the poorest or most remote parts of the world.
Back in February Rosalynn Carter, 90, had surgery to remove “troubling scar tissue” from a portion of her small intestine. The next day, her husband told a Presidents Day crowd in their hometown of Plains that he’d been “deathly afraid” as she underwent the “very serious” operation.
Since then,her recovery has reportedly gone well. Still, the former first lady told the crowd that even her husband hadn’t known she intended to speak until they arrived at the dinner.
“Having worked on mental health issues for 47 years, I had to get on this stage and thank MAP International,” Rosalynn Carter, 90, said about the health and relief organization that provides medicines (including ones related to mental health) and other health supplies to people living in poverty around the world. “Also, I am honored to accept an award in the name of Bill Foege. He is one of my heroes.”