Although Medical Science aims to eradicate Infectious Diseases in order to protect life and reduce the healthcare burden, it has only been able to achieve that goal against two diseases to date. While this remains a difficult task, there is a genuine possibility that additional diseases will be eliminated in the near future! Let’s explore the diseases that have been consigned to history…and those that are set to join them soon.
Smallpox: declared eradicated in 1980
Following a concentrated global effort spanning more than 20 years, Smallpox became the first infectious disease to be eradicated by mankind. Smallpox was characterized by high fever, vomiting, and an extensive skin eruption characterized by vesicles, pustules, and permanent scarring. Thirty percent of cases were fatal, and recurring outbreaks affected virtually all countries, leading to the deaths of as many as 300 million humans during the 20th century.
The disease has already been eliminated in North America and Europe when, in 1959, the World Health Organization declared the eradication initiative to permanently eradicate Smallpox. A vaccine with enhanced efficacy became widely available in 1967, and a formal Eradication Programme was put into effect. The last cases were reported in Africa in 1977, and WHO officially declared that Smallpox had been eradicated in 1980.
Rinderpest: declared eradicated in 2011
31 years later, a second disease joined the “eradicated” list. Rinderpest was a viral disease that affected cattle and other hoofed animals. The condition was responsible for the deaths of countless livestock prior to the 20th century, causing fever, loss of appetite, and severe diarrhea. While not known to infect humans, this disease had a significant impact on food security and the livelihoods of countless individuals who worked in related industries.
A vaccine was developed in 1918 and was improved upon throughout the 20th century, eventually leading to the eradication of Rinderpest in most regions. The FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) initiated the Global Rinderpest Eradication Programme in 1994, which led to the last reported cases in 2001, Kenya. The official declaration of the eradication of Rinderpest was released in June 2011.
What are we eradicating right now?
The world is very close to eradicating wild Polio, with only 33 cases reported globally in 2018 and 176 in 2019, following an eradication initiative that began in 1988. Initially, the goal was to eliminate Poliomyelitis by 2019. Although small pockets of infection continue to fester into 2021, workers in the field feel that mankind is very close to the eradication of this disease.
Guinea Worm Disease (Dracunculiasis) is also “on the radar.” This is a crippling parasitic disease, which is extremely painful and can prevent its victims from working and living normal lives for several months – a disaster for agricultural areas in Africa, where the disease is reported. Eradication of this disease was originally targeted to occur in 1981, and efforts were given further impetus by the WHA (World Health Assembly) in 2001. Their goal is very much at hand… only 54 cases were reported in 2019!
Another lesser-known disease on the path to eradication is Yaws, which the WHO has been working to eradicate since the 1950s. The bacterium which causes Yaws is closely related to the agent of syphilis and can be easily treated with a small dose of antibiotics. 80,472 suspected cases of Yaws were reported in 2018, of which 888 were confirmed.
Finally, a more familiar disease – Rabies – is also targeted for eradication. The World Health Organization is working to prevent all human deaths from Rabies by 2030 while vaccinating all wild and domestic carnivores (foxes, dogs, etc) as well. 17,400 cases of human rabies were reported in 2015, and 29 million individuals were treated following the bites of animals that may have carried the disease. In 2019, Mexico was the first country to be validated by WHO for having eliminated human deaths from dog-mediated rabies; and hopefully, the rest of the world can soon follow suit and rid us of yet another disease.
Beyond the diseases mentioned there are several well-known diseases – such as Tuberculosis, HIV infection, and Malaria – that could possibly be eradicated in the coming years. New drugs and vaccines are continually being developed, and the advent of the COVID-19 vaccine has demonstrated that a concentrated effort can make all the difference.
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