Dr. Francois Gasse has confronted a wide variety of health threats in the course of his work for UNICEF. For instance, he nearly lost a leg to blood poisoning; has been bitten by a tsetse fly; been left writhing in pain by dengue fever; almost succumbed to cerebral malaria; and has seen a poisonous black mamba snake drop out of a tree at his bare feet.
But there's only one health problem that really concerns the man widely known as 'Dr. Tetanus'. The rest are simply occupational hazards. "When you go where the tetanus is, you go to the end of the road," says Dr. Gasse. "There are no four-star hotels there."
Dr. Gasse's dedication to the fight against tetanus has its origins in an experience he had as a medical student. "Once you've seen tetanus, you never forget it,” he says. "The patient had a rubber gag between his teeth and was tied to his hospital bed in a dark and silent room. We learned that the slightest noise or light could trigger the worst convulsions known to medicine. The seizures are so severe, the entire body arches so dramatically, patients have broken their spines."
There is still no cure for tetanus and fewer than 20 per cent of patients survive. In developing countries, newborns are often infected when their umbilical cords are cut in unsanitary conditions. "Tetanus is the leading cause of neonatal mortality in the poorest parts of the world," says Dr. Gasse. "Yet if a mother is vaccinated she passes her immunity to her baby, who is protected for the first few months of life."
The son of a judge in the French Foreign Service, Dr. Gasse was born in 1947 in Nice, France, and raised in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo. These days he has a family of his own and, like many UNICEF employees, he struggles to balance the commitments of work and family. "I miss them terribly," he says. "And there is a limit to how long you can be separated from a child."
But, for Dr. Gasse, tetanus is unfinished business. Immunization is still unavailable to many and that is not a situation he is prepared to see continue. By the year 2010, he hopes that the disease will have been eliminated. "No one need die of tetanus today," he says. "Not when it can be so easily prevented."
In October 2001, Dr. Gasse was awarded the Ronald McDonald Award of Excellence for his work to eradicate tetanus. "But don't make me out to be a hero," he says. " I may be the catalyst in the battle for tetanus, but the people I work with in the field, who do this for pennies, they are the real heroes."
This article is based on a feature originally published in Biography Magazine, © AETN. All rights reserved.