In Memoriam: Balla Musa Silla (1955-2003)

Balla Musa Silla, founding vice-President for Vaccine Preparedness at the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative (IAVI), and a visionary leader in the fields of population and international development, died on 27 June , 2003 at his home in Ossining, New York. He was 48. The cause of death was T-cell lymphoma.

Mr. Silla was born in The Gambia but was truly a citizen of the world, having lived and worked in over 27 countries. He was a tireless advocate for the needs and potential of the developing world, a theme that runs through his professional and personal life. His career began in The Gambia, first as a volunteer working alongside the international community, and eventually as the government’s Director for Population Affairs, where he was a direct advisor to the President. 

In 1996, he was approached to lead an ambitious and untested venture, Partners in Population and Development, an intergovernmental alliance of Southern countries addressing issues of family planning and reproductive health through South-to-South collaboration. Partners was a unique organization of Southern governments working closely with each other and with a variety of NGOs and community-based groups toward a shared goal. The pace at which the program grew bore witness to Mr. Silla’s deft diplomacy and his unstinting commitment to South-South cooperation. His vision was grounded in the belief that the solutions to development lay in developing countries themselves. 

Tall, elegant and well-spoken, Mr. Silla had a stately, captivating presence. A colleague at Partners recalls a plenary speech he once gave. “Unlike the others on the podium, he had no slides; he simply spoke and told the life story of a girl growing up in poverty. The tale flowed naturally and illustrated the realities of injustice and the challenges to development, but on a deeply personal level. He put the sentiment back into that auditorium in Geneva—he brought poverty into the room. Colleagues from different parts of the world thought of their own people. This was his gift.” 

Mr. Silla joined IAVI in September 2001, where he founded a department tasked with building international support and awareness for AIDS vaccine development and helping to build developing country capacity for clinical testing. Once again, he proved to be equally at home power-brokering with world leaders and listening to the needs and concerns of underserved communities desperately in need of an AIDS vaccine. Most of all, he understood the centrality of AIDS in undermining development, as well as the potential of vaccination to reverse the epidemic’s devastation in the world’s poor countries. 

Mr. Silla left an indelible impression on those who worked with him, and will be remembered for his kindness, generosity of spirit and dynamic personality. “My memories are of a big, strong, proud man, with a wide, mischievous grin, and a gracious manner beyond any I have encountered,” says Craig McClure, who worked with him at IAVI on community mobilization. To his former colleagues, he leaves a legacy of commitment to a vision of a better future. 

Mr. Silla is survived by his wife, Joan Millsap, and their two sons, Christopher and Andrew. 

Bonnie Bender and Fawzia Rasheed 

Bonnie Bender, IAVI’s Program Manager for Vaccine Preparedness, worked with Mr. Silla during his tenure with the organization. Dr. Fawzia Rasheed was his colleague at Partners, where she served as Senior Advisor on HIV/AIDS & STD and Policy Advisor.