S2E4 / Speedboat Epidemiology

Listen on:
Apple Podcasts SpotifyGoogle Podcasts

Shahidul Haq Khan, a Bangladeshi health worker, and Tim Miner, an American with the World Health Organization, worked together on a smallpox eradication team in Bangladesh in the early 1970s. The team was based on a hospital ship and traveled by speedboat to track down cases of smallpox from Barishal to Faridpur to Patuakhali. Every person who agreed to get the smallpox vaccination was a potential outbreak averted, so the team was determined to vaccinate as many people as possible. 

The duo leaned on each other, sometimes literally, as they traversed the country’s rugged and watery geography. Khan, whom Miner sometimes referred to as “little brother,” used his local knowledge to help the team navigate both the cultural and physical landscape. When crossing rickety bamboo bridges, he would hold Miner’s hand and help him across. “We didn’t let him fall,” chuckled Khan. 

Episode 4 of “Eradicating Smallpox” explores what it took to bring care directly to people where they were. 

To conclude the episode, host Céline Gounder speaks with public health advocate Joe Osmundson about his work to help coordinate a culturally appropriate response to mpox in New York City during the summer of 2022. “The model that we’re trying to build is a mobile unit that delivers all sorts of sexual and primary health care opportunities. They’re opportunities!” exclaimed Osmundson.

To see a timeline for this season, click here.

In Conversation With Host Céline Gounder: 

  • Joe Osmundson
    Public health advocate and clinical assistant professor of biology at New York University

Voices From the episode: 

  • Tim Miner
    Former World Health Organization smallpox eradication program worker in Bangladesh. 
  • Shahidul Haq Khan
    Former World Health Organization smallpox eradication program worker in Bangladesh. 


“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.

Podcast Transcript
Epidemic: “Eradicating Smallpox”
Season 2, Episode 4: Speedboat Epidemiology
Air date: Aug. 29, 2023 

Editor’s note: If you are able, we encourage you to listen to the audio of “Epidemic,” which includes emotion and emphasis not found in the transcript. This transcript, generated using transcription software, has been edited for style and clarity. Please use the transcript as a tool but check the corresponding audio before quoting the podcast. 




Céline Gounder: In the early 1970s, smallpox was still stalking parts of South Asia. India had launched its eradication program more than a decade before, but public health workers couldn’t keep up with the virus. 

Enter … the bifurcated needle. 

[Metallic ding sound] 

[Light instrumental music begins playing] 

Tim Miner: It was a marvelous invention in its simplicity. It looks like a little cocktail fork. 

Céline Gounder: You dip the prongs into a bit of vaccine … 

Tim Miner: And you would just prick the skin about 12 or 15 times until there was a little trace of blood and then you’d take another one. 

Céline Gounder: It barely took 30 seconds to vaccinate someone. 

And it didn’t hurt. 

Yogesh Parashar: No. 

Céline Gounder: Well … it didn’t hurt too much. 

Yogesh Parashar: It was just like a pinprick, rapidly done on your forearm. You had a huge supply with you and you just went about and — dot, dot, dot — vaccinated people, carry hundreds with you at one go. 

Tim Miner: And you could train somebody in a matter of minutes to do it. 

Céline Gounder: Easy to use. Easy to clean. And a big improvement over the twisting teeth of the vaccine instrument health workers had to use before. 

The bifurcated needle was maybe 2 and a half, 3 inches long. 

Small, but sturdy enough for rough-and-tumble fieldwork. 

Yogesh Parashar: It was made of steel. And it used to come in something that looked like a brick. It was just like one of those gold bricks that you see in the movies. 

Céline Gounder: And maybe worth its weight in gold. 

[Light instrumental music fades to silence] 

Céline Gounder: That “cocktail fork” was among the pioneering innovations that helped public health workers wipe out a centuries-old virus. 

Tim Miner: You had the bifurcated needle, you had the sterile water, and you had the freeze-dried vaccine, and you could mix them up and off you’d go. 

Céline Gounder: Ah, but getting there wasn’t always that easy. 

I’m Dr. Céline Gounder, and this is “Epidemic.” 

[Epidemic theme music plays] 

Céline Gounder: On this episode, we’re exploring what it took to deliver the smallpox vaccine to the people — and all the remaining places — that needed it most. 

In South Asia, Bangladesh was a major battleground in the campaign to stop smallpox. 

We spoke with a man who helped lead an eradication team there. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: My name is MD Shahidul Haq Khan. 

Céline Gounder: For our interview, Shahidul Haq Khan invited me to his home in Barishal. That’s in south-central Bangladesh. We sat at a table in the courtyard, and his granddaughter, Kashfia, who looked like she was around 10 years old, stood close by … 

Céline Gounder: Kashfia. So nice to meet you, Kashfia. I’m Céline. 

Kashfia: Hello. 

Céline Gounder: Hello. [Céline chuckles.] Are you going to listen to us? 

Céline Gounder: Kashfia wanted to hear her granddad’s stories, and I got the impression that was also important to Shahidul. 

As the two of us did our best to communicate through a translator — with neighbors, chickens, and street noise all around — Shahidul wanted me to understand why he was speaking with me and the significance of the smallpox campaign. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: The purpose of saying these things is that we needed all this effort. We put a lot of hard work and effort behind smallpox eradication. 

Céline Gounder: Very hard work. You must be very proud of what you helped accomplish. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: Yes, of course. Of course, I can say that we’re proud to say that we’ve eliminated smallpox from this country. 

Céline Gounder: The job was to hunt down smallpox — and stop it — in a country packed with people, crisscrossed by rivers, edged with mangrove forests, and dotted with remote lowland river islands. 

[Rain sounds fade in] 

Céline Gounder: And there were the monsoons. It rained A LOT. 

[Bouncy, upbeat music begins playing softly in the background] 

[Rain sounds fades out] 

Tim Miner: Uh, well, we got wet. [Tim chuckles.] To state the obvious. 

Céline Gounder: That’s Tim Miner. He was an officer with the World Health Organization in Bangladesh. 

Tim Miner: My legal name is Howard Miner, but I was the third Howard, so I got nicknamed Tim. 

Céline Gounder: Shahidul and Tim worked together for several months in 1974. 

The public health strategy was called “search and containment,” and a big part of that meant figuring out how to get the vaccine from one community to the next. 

Tim Miner: And occasionally you have to park your motorcycle, take your shoes and socks off, and walk across a leech-infested paddy field to get to the next case. 

Céline Gounder: The work depended on local knowledge, and Shahidul was the local knowledge. 

He was the lead Bangladeshi member on the eradication team, and when they arrived at a village that had a suspected case of smallpox, often Shahidul went in first, with Tim a few steps behind …  

Tim Miner: Someone would bring out some chairs. And sometimes we would have tea and biscuits. Or, if they didn’t have tea and biscuits, then somebody would climb up and get a coconut and chop off the top and watch me drink it and dribble the coconut milk all over myself, and everybody had a good time.  

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: Dr. Miner called me “little brother.” I was younger then. How old was I? 21 or 22 years old. 

Tim Miner: He referred to me as “Dr. Miner,” even though I’m not a … a physician. That’s how he referred to me. 

Céline Gounder: Shahidul had been working in public health before he joined the smallpox effort. He offered guidance on culture — and occasionally gave Tim a hand on rickety bamboo bridges. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: Most of the time, I escorted him across the bamboo bridge. I took his bag and held his hand and helped him across. 

Tim Miner: You learn to walk and not look down and just, uh, you know, hang onto the poles. And, fortunately, I never fell in. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: We didn’t let him fall. 

[Bouncy, upbeat music fades out] 

Céline Gounder: The team was based on a hospital ship, called the Niramoy. It had all the basics: a couple of cabins, a space to perform surgery, plus a few comforts, like a generator they’d turn on in the morning for showers, a cook who picked up fresh fish at the market every day. 

Tim Miner: I would have a doodh cha, a tea with milk, and a kacha morich pyaz — scrambled eggs with, uh, chiles. 

Céline Gounder: The hospital ship hauled supplies from port to port. And everywhere they went, they towed a speedboat along with them. 

Tim Miner: We would receive reports of cases and we would get down from the ship in our speedboat, and the speedboat driver would take us as far as the boat could go. And we would walk, do the investigation, and find out who the contacts were and vaccinate the village and surrounding areas. 

Céline Gounder: Tim calls it “speedboat epidemiology.” The work required a willingness to go wherever and everywhere the virus took up residence. By and large, people welcomed them and were glad to get the vaccine. 

Tim Miner: They know about smallpox. They’ve been dealing with it, you know, all of their lives. And they have lost family members to the disease. 

Céline Gounder: Still, the task was huge: to find and vaccinate every person with smallpox — and all the people that person had come in contact with. 

[Subtle music begins playing] 

Céline Gounder: In modern-day public health, the work gets done with cellphones and spreadsheets, maybe social media. In Bangladesh in 1974, they had none of that. 

Shahidul and Tim had the speedboat, motorbikes, and their feet to cover a territory that took them all the way down to the coast. 

Tim Miner: First there’s Barishal … 

Shahidul Haq Khan: Latachapli … 

Tim Miner: … then there’s Faridpur … 

Shahidul Haq Khan: … Dankupara … 

Tim Miner: … then there’s Patuakhali. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: … and Kuakata. 

Céline Gounder: People were constantly on the move — maybe for seasonal work or better opportunities. That made contact tracing tricky. During one investigation, Tim identified a man who’d been exposed to the virus, but he’d left the region for Dhaka. 

The capital was densely populated — a city of 2 million in 1974. And smallpox was highly contagious. So Tim called a colleague — on the shortwave radio — to see if he could track down the man in Dhaka. 

[Ambient Dhaka street noises play in the background] 

Tim Miner: Well, it’s not just a street address or a ZIP code or anything like that, as you can well imagine. He lived in a basti, or a slum. And I described it as best I could. You know, ‘You enter by the big tree and turn left at the tea stall and walk the path and then start calling out for the family name.’ 

Céline Gounder: They found the guy! And vaccinated him. Tim says the man had smallpox, but the virus hadn’t quite erupted yet, so it was a pretty mild case. 

Tim Miner: Because of his immunization. It is somewhat miraculous, the needle in the haystack. 

[Music fades out] 

Céline Gounder: In Bangladesh, people weren’t likely to just show up to a local clinic to get the vaccine, so the team took the vaccine to the people. 

At its best, public health follows and bends to the rhythm of the culture. For example, after Ramadan, as Muslims began to break the fast for Eid … 

Tim Miner: Where people go back to their villages and visit and bring presents and gifts and food. 

[Ambient sounds of the water from a port in Bangladesh play] 

Céline Gounder: The team went to ports where steamer ships departed, asking in Bengali if travelers had come in contact with anyone with the disease’s distinctive pustules. 

Tim Miner: Guṭibasanta, uh, basanta rōgī. 

Céline Gounder: Which means “smallpox patient.” 

Tim Miner: Have you seen any guṭibasanta and basanta rōgī? 

Céline Gounder: Tim says he relied on his team to figure out how best to make the person in front of them comfortable. 

Tim Miner: ‘What would you do? What do you think should be done in this case?’ And I don’t think this is done often enough. It was a real partnership. It was real working together. 

Céline Gounder: Well, a partnership, yes. But Shahidul Haq Khan says the search-and-containment program was pretty strict. His work was meticulously checked and checked again. 

Remember, he was maybe 21 or 22 years old, with a big responsibility on his shoulders, and Tim Miner was a tough boss. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: At any cost, we had to vaccinate all. There was no other way. 

Céline Gounder: Sometimes Shahidul had to return to the same home over and over — or hang out, if the man of the house was still in the fields working. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: We had to wait until they returned. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: Otherwise, Dr. Miner would again take us back there, no matter how late. [Shahidul laughs] 

Céline Gounder: One evening, Shahidul returned to the hospital ship after a day of door-to-door canvassing, and had to give a not-so-great report to Tim. 

[Tense music begins playing] 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] … a pregnant, uh, … 

English translation: I couldn’t vaccinate a pregnant woman in Dankupara. This was the first time that I couldn’t vaccinate someone. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: I couldn’t convince her at all. He immediately told us to pack up. He stopped the work and said, “Let’s go.” 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: Immediately. At that very moment. 

Tim Miner: We were working basically 24/7, if need be. 

Céline Gounder: The team headed to the speedboat. It was late. And it was freezing. Shahidul remembers the bite of the cold air as they blasted across the water toward the woman’s village. 

Tim Miner: I fully understand, understood why this woman hesitated to be vaccinated. She was expecting a child and she didn’t want to do anything to jeopardize her life or the life of the unborn child. So, we were very gentle in talking with her and answering her questions. It was time well spent. 

Céline Gounder: The woman agreed to take the vaccine. 

Shahidul Haq Khan: [Shahidul speaking in Bengali] 

English translation: That day was one of the most memorable of my life. 

[Music fades to silence] 

Céline Gounder: Many on the team considered their outreach to women fundamental to success in South Asia, because … women talk. 

What they say, what they believe, echoes. 

Tim Miner: They get together, they do the laundry, they do the cooking, they share good times and bad times. This woman who was vaccinated probably showed her vaccination either in her family or in the village. And that’s the importance of getting one person, especially a pregnant woman who will tell others about immunization. 

Céline Gounder: Public health workers trying to end smallpox across South Asia mostly had the same tools — the vaccine, that bifurcated needle, and a strategy — on paper. But squashing the virus required tactics specific to each community: its needs, its culture, its worries … and its terrain. 

[Staccato music begins playing] 

Céline Gounder: Smallpox eradication workers went to great lengths to meet people where they were. 

But Joe Osmundson, who’s a public health advocate in New York City, told me that’s not an approach we see nearly enough in public health today. 

Joe Osmundson: Céline, it’s not your first time at the rodeo. [Celine laughs] Um, it’s like, we’ve all been through this again and again and again. 

We know what the problems are and yet we seem reluctant to actually do the right thing, which is to build processes that meet people where they’re at. 

Céline Gounder: After the break, more on what it looks like to bring public health directly to those who need it most. 

[Music fades to silence] 

Céline Gounder: Mpox, formerly known as monkeypox, is a highly contagious virus. Last summer, mpox cases spiked around the world, spreading quickly, predominantly among men who have sex with men. Mpox spreads through physical contact. It causes a painful blistering rash and, in extreme cases, it can be deadly. 

My colleague Joe Osmundson acted as a community liaison for the New York City Department of Health to help coordinate a culturally appropriate response to mpox. 

Joe Osmundson: I’m a microbiologist by training, but I also just do tons of advocacy and activism as a queer person who believes in equal access to the best biomedicine available. 

Céline Gounder: As mpox cases were increasing, we knew we needed to vaccinate those at highest risk as quickly as possible. Joe’s plan? Mobile vans to quickly bring mpox vaccines to places where high-risk people already were. 

Joe Osmundson: Our idea was to go to commercial sex venues, because commercial sex venues self-select for people with a large number of sexual partners. And if you give them the best possible immunity, that protects not just the people at the party but all the other people in the larger sexual network that they connect with. 

Céline Gounder: What is a commercial sex venue? 

Joe Osmundson: It’s basically a nonhousehold space where people gather for sex. 

When you have public venues where people gather, you have the opportunity to meet them where they’re at, to provide education, to provide condoms, to provide access to HIV testing and access to health care. 

So many queer people don’t have affirming doctors, don’t feel comfortable asking about sexual health with their physicians. So, you can put a van outside with affirming physicians and actually provide that preventative care that actually stops the infection. 

Céline Gounder: Did you run into any obstacles in doing this outreach? Setting up the mobile vans …? 

Joe Osmundson: So, there is a huge amount of mistrust in this community for city officials, for good reason. For many decades there was a group inside the New York City Department of Health that had undercover people who would go to these parties and find violations and close them down. So really it was only me and a couple other people doing outreach on-site. 

Céline Gounder: How did it work, what was the scene like, and what was your role in that? 

Joe Osmundson: Yeah, so, when I was there, I would go inside the club and, you know, there’s a little line, an area where people get dressed or undressed, and I would just hang out there and people would have a lot of questions. 

So, because, again, they perceived me as being, like, a part of their community, it was very easy to talk to people and just ask, you know, “Hey, have you had your vaccine yet? Have you had both doses?” If not, you know, it’ll take 15 minutes. I can walk you down to the van and get you that dose tonight. 

Céline Gounder: Were these mobile vaccination vans successful? 

Joe Osmundson: We find them to be massively successful. Once the city was able to get the vans there, people were so grateful to be able to get a shot on-site. 

We were giving 60, 80 doses per event — when the event might only have 140 people — so we were vaccinating 60% of these parties. 

That’s the other magic of the mobile units, was that you had people queer people talking to queer people, and even queer people of color talking to queer people of color and offering the care in terms that that community knows how to respond to and also just has more inherent trust with. 

Céline Gounder: But, at the same time, in New York City, mpox vaccination rates have been disproportionately low in Black communities. 

Joe Osmundson: Mm-hmm. 

Céline Gounder: As well as Hispanic communities. 

What could public health leaders have done from the start to ensure more equitable vaccine distribution, and what should they be doing now? 

Joe Osmundson: Yeah. It was a remarkable sort of mistake that, not just New York, but many cities made where they said we’ll build the foundation and then worry about equity later, because this is an emergency. 

So we’ll open up a brick-and-mortar in Chelsea, and then we’ll get the vaccine vans up at, you know, Brooklyn Pride, a Bronx health clinic. You know, we’ll do that later. 

We know that if you don’t do equity as the foundation, you will be chasing disparities. 

Céline Gounder: What can we say about who’s been vaccinated and who remains unvaccinated? 

Joe Osmundson: Black people are undervaccinated. They also have a higher rate of advanced HIV infection, and mpox plus advanced HIV means really severe disease and even death. Ninety percent of mpox deaths have been in Black people, Black queer people with advanced HIV. 

And we need something brand-new because we’ve been failing these folks for years. They have so many horrific experiences with their health care providers, or they don’t have insurance, or they’re underemployed, or they live super far from the nearest health care clinic. 

When people have difficulties accessing care, it spreads to every disease state, from HIV to mpox to primary care, etc. 

Céline Gounder: How can we apply this model of health outreach beyond mpox? 

Joe Osmundson: The model that we’re trying to build is a mobile unit that delivers all sorts of sexual and primary health care opportunities. They are opportunities! You know? If someone’s getting a covid vaccine, give them a flu vaccine at the same time. The literature shows that these interventions work. 

Céline Gounder: What else is there beyond vans? Are there other strategies when it comes to reaching people where they are that we haven’t employed that we should be thinking about? 

Joe Osmundson: We have affirming clinicians, affirming Black queer clinicians all over this city. Their expertise should be fostered. 

For years there’s been this model of health officials talking to community. And that’s outreach. And we aren’t done with that. 

We have experts, we have clinicians, we have epidemiologists, we have scientists who are in the community who know the science just as well as health officials. And communication needs to go two ways. 

Céline Gounder: That was Joe Osmundson, a microbiologist at New York University and the author of the book Virology. 

Joe Osmundson: The sexiest public health outreach worker of all time! [Laughter] A face made for radio. [Laughter] 

[“Epidemic” theme music begins playing] 

Céline Gounder: Next time on “Epidemic” … 

Larry Brilliant: Your company is sending death all over the world. You’re the greatest exporter of smallpox in history … You’ve got to stop this. 

Céline Gounder: “Eradicating Smallpox,” our latest season of “Epidemic,” is a co-production of KFF Health News and Just Human Productions. 

Additional support provided by the Sloan Foundation. 

This episode was produced by Taylor Cook, Zach Dyer, and me. 

Redwan Ahmed was our translator and local reporting partner in Bangladesh. 

Managing editor Taunya English was scriptwriter for the episode — with help from Stephanie O’Neill. 

Oona Tempest is our graphics and photo editor. 

The show was engineered by Justin Gerrish. 

Voice acting by Pinaki Kar. 

We had extra editing help from Simone Popperl. 

Music in this episode is from the Blue Dot Sessions and Soundstripe. 

We’re powered and distributed by Simplecast. 

If you enjoyed the show, please tell a friend. And leave us a review on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find the show. 

Follow KFF Health News on Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok. 

And find me on Twitter @celinegounder. On our socials, there’s more about the ideas we’re exploring on the podcasts. And subscribe to our newsletters at kffhealthnews.org so you’ll never miss what’s new and important in American health care, health policy, and public health news. 

I’m Dr. Céline Gounder. Thanks for listening to “Epidemic.” 

[“Epidemic” theme fades out] 

Dr. Celine Gounder Dr. Celine Gounder