TB, AIDS and polio on the verge of extinction

Golden years: As of 2015 the average global life expectancy for humans was 71.4 years.

Is a world free from disease really possible? The news may be about superbugs and cancer but the deeper trends show that many of the great killer diseases are in long-term dramatic retreat

Right now, alarming headlines are warning of a deadly flu crisis spreading across the globe. And in recent years, high-profile epidemics of Ebola in West Africa and Zika in Brazil have fuelled a seemingly never-ending succession of global health scares.

But for all the lives ravaged by these terrible diseases, countless more are being quietly saved by historic advances in medicine.

Indeed former US president Barack Obama recently declared that “The world has never been healthier.” He claimed that “If you had to choose any moment in history in which to be born, you would choose right now.”

So just how good is medicine getting?

Well, some of the most deadly diseases are slowly being wiped out. Tuberculosis has killed more people than any other infectious disease in history, responsible for over a billion deaths in the last 200 years. Yet since 2000 the global number of deaths has fallen by 37% — meaning that over 50 million lives have been saved.

Furthermore, since 2005 AIDs deaths have dropped by half. This is largely down to a huge intergovernmental effort to distribute lifesaving drugs to vulnerable areas.

Similarly, a global vaccination drive has almost completely eradicated polio, whilst increasingly effective vaccines for cholera are also being developed.

But as these highly infectious diseases are eradicated, other “non-communicable” diseases become more prominent. These are illnesses which are not contagious like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and chronic respiratory disease.

Yet even these are becoming less deadly. One study found that globally, premature deaths caused by these four major conditions decreased by 16% between 2000 and 2015. In the USA cancer deaths alone fell by 23% between 1991 and 2012 — saving 1.7 million lives.

This particular trend has less to do with wonder drugs or big international health programmes, but more subtle social changes. Fewer people smoke, and greater cancer awareness leads to people going for check-ups more regularly.

But can these trends lead to a world free from disease?

Gut feeling

It is possible, some say. A century ago, the idea of totally eradicating polio would have seemed ridiculous. But through cooperation, ingenious research, and sheer force of will, we have almost done it. Nothing stops us from attempting the same thing with more diseases — particularly with so many lives at stake.

Diseases could actually get worse, others respond. With antibiotic resistance increasing, the day may come when super-resistant bugs will devastate human populations. Furthermore, we must focus less on cures and more on the causes of disease. Simple things like better access to clean water would save countless lives.

You Decide

  1. Is it possible to eradicate all the diseases in the world?
  2. Would a world without disease be a completely good thing?

Activities

  1. Many diseases are due to infections which can be spread due to poor hygiene. What steps can we all take to reduce the chance of passing on infections to others? Design a poster which includes tips on how to reduce the chance of spreading germs and disease.
  2. Do some research into disease eradication — use Become An Expert to help you. Which is the only disease that humans have completely eradicated? What diseases could be eradicated in the next 20 years? What different methods are scientists using to defeat these diseases?

Some People Say...

“Life is only precious because it ends.”

Rick Riordan

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The prevalence of some diseases varies significantly between regions of the world. For example, in the USA in 2016 there were 2.9 cases of tuberculosis per 100,000 people. By contrast, in 2015 Sub-Saharan Africa recorded 276 cases per 100,000 people.
What do we not know?
For some major diseases there is still no known cure. For example, HIV medication is designed to manage the symptoms and prevent the sufferer from developing AIDS. Other major diseases without cures include Ebola, Alzheimer’s, and Diabetes.

Word Watch

Flu crisis
This particular outbreak has been dubbed “Aussie” flu. Thousands of deaths have been recorded across the United States and Great Britain.
Ebola
Deadly infectious disease which can cause vomiting, diarrhoea, and internal bleeding. Between 2013 and 2016 an outbreak ravaged several West African nations in which over 11,000 people died.
37%
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Drugs
Known as antiretroviral drugs, this medicine does not cure the virus, but prevents those suffering from HIV from developing AIDS.
Polio
Deadly disease which can also cause paralysis. Once common across the world, in 2017 there were only 22 cases of wild polio reported from just two countries: Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Cholera
Disease particularly common in areas with poor sanitation and low access to clean drinking water. See The New York Times link in Become An Expert.
Chronic respiratory disease
Includes conditions like asthma, cystic fibrosis, and lung cancer.
Antibiotic resistance
When bacteria adapt so that they can survive the antibiotic medicines used to kill them in the past.