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Manchester native recognized for his work with infectious diseases

New Hampshire Sunday News

August 16. 2014 7:48PM

Dr. F. Marc LaForce (COURTESY)

A Manchester native who has devoted his career to preventing and treating infectious diseases around the world has received a prestigious award for his work on affordable vaccines in Africa.

Dr. F. Marc LaForce will receive the 2015 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter Humanitarian Award from the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases (NFID) next spring. The honor recognizes "his vision, tenacity, clinical and scientific expertise, and diplomacy in the development and implementation of the Group A meningococcal vaccine in Africa," according to a news release from NFID.

LaForce grew up in Manchester and attended Saint Anselm College. He and his wife of nearly 50 years, Nancy, now live in Virginia - when he's home, that is.

His work has taken him around the world, including India, Bangladesh, Thailand, Indonesia and the African nations of Nigeria, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Sudan. "We've moved 24 times, and you don't move 24 times without a courageous wife," he said.

For many Americans, global health threats can seem remote. But LaForce said Americans should care about what happens in places such as west Africa.

"One of the reasons they should care is that the world is getting much smaller than it was when I started doing this work 50 years ago," he said. "What goes on in Africa sooner or later will impact what happens here, what happens in Europe, what happens in Asia. It's just a much smaller world."

There's another reason we should care, he said: "When people are hurting, people need to respond to help them."

Q: Congratulations on being selected to receive the 2014 Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter award for your work. Where were you when you learned you had been selected ... and what was your first reaction?

A: I was in India working when I received an email asking me to call the National Foundation because they had some "good news." I was told that I was nominated for the award. Needless to say I was excited.You grew up in Manchester and went to Saint Anselm College. How did those early years shape who you are and the path you chose to follow?

I am a product of the Catholic parochial school system in Manchester and I attended Saint Anselm College. Manchester was a great place to grow up and the lessons learned about responsibility, scholarship, justice and hard work while having fun have never left me.Tell us about your work on preventing infectious diseases in Africa. Of what are you proudest?I have been working in international public health since the mid-1960s. Over the years, I have done many consultative missions in Sub-Saharan Africa and largely in Francophone countries since I speak French fluently. I pursued an academic medical career at Harvard and the University of Colorado and Rochester Schools of Medicine.

My sabbatical leaves were largely spent working at the World Health Organization's Expanded Program on Immunization.

From 2001 to 2012, I directed the Meningitis Vaccine Project, a partnership between WHO and PATH aimed at developing and introducing a Group A meningococcal conjugate vaccine in Sub-Saharan Africa. The project succeeded in introducing a new meningococcal vaccine, and by the end of this year over 200 million Africans will have received a dose of the vaccine. Much of the world's attention is focused right now on Ebola .... As someone who has worked on global infectious diseases, what concerns you most about such emerging global health threats? Making sure that sufficient funds and expertise are available to effectively deal with these threats.

With so much of American culture focused on distractions such as political scandals and celebrity gossip, what would it take to get people to instead pay attention to the world's really pressing problems?I'm not sure. The easiest answer is getting people there so that they can see the problems first hand. That's what happened to me.

I finished my early internal medicine training at the Boston City Hospital. In 1966, I was drafted into the US Public Health Service as an Epidemic Intelligence Service officer at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta. One of my assignments took me to northeast Thailand to help assess a malaria program.

My 6-week tour in Thailand was a huge educational experience and convinced me that many of the basic health problems were soluble.

I changed my area of specialization to infectious diseases and began working with WHO's Smallpox Eradication Program in the mid '70s and later with the Expanded Program on Immunization, a group that I continue collaborating with. Sometimes the problems facing the world's poorest and most vulnerable seem insurmountable.

Yet you've tackled a series of such challenges in your work. What keeps you from getting discouraged? I thoroughly enjoy field work, and it is working directly with people that continues to energize me. There are lessons to be learned wherever you are.

People are inherently optimistic and I continue to be amazed at what little it takes to allow individuals to survive and thrive.

The cohesion and coalescence of groups and the shared support are huge lessons. The African proverb "it takes a village to raise a child" says it all.

It also helps to be optimistic and I make no apologies for my optimism.Are you considering retirement - and if so, what would that look like?At the present time I am not terribly interested in retirement. I serve as director, Technical Services for the Serum Institute of India, Ltd located in Pune, India.

I am deeply involved in the development and testing of an affordable polyvalent meningococcal conjugate vaccine that will serve as a follow-on meningitis vaccine for Africa.

I am in my mid-70s and there is still so much to do.

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