1: From Wikipedia: “Smallpox was an infectious disease caused by either of two virus variants, Variola major and Variola minor.”
Yes, “smallpox was.”
“The disease that got its name from the painful pustules that cover the victim’s skin, mouth, and eyes and that killed more than 300 million people in the 20th century has ceased to exist,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.
The last case was diagnosed in Somalia in 1977.
“For this astounding moral triumph we can thank, among others, Edward Jenner, who discovered vaccination in 1796, the World Health Organization, which in 1959 set the audacious goal of eradicating the disease, and William Foege, who figured out that vaccinating small but strategically chosen portions of the vulnerable populations would do the job,” comments the economist Charles Kenny.
The total, ten-year cost of the program?
$312 million. Or about 32 cents per person in infected countries. The equivalent of the cost of the wing of a B-2 bomber. Talk about a colossal return on investment.
2: “But this stupendous achievement was only the beginning,” Steven observes. Rinderpest or cattle plague, which starved millions of farmers throughout history by wiping out their livestock? Was. Past tense.
“Polio? From 350,000 cases in 1988 to less than 1,500 in 2020. Guinea worm, a three-foot-long parasite for which the only treatment consists of pulling the worm out over several days or weeks? From 3.5 million in 1986 to just twenty-five cases in 2016.
“Elephantiasis, river blindness, and blinding trachoma, whose symptoms are as bad as they sound, may also be defined in the past tense by 2030,” Steven notes. “Measles, rubella, yaws, sleeping sickness, and hookworm are in epidemiologist’s’ sights as well.
“And in the most ambitious plan of all, a team of global health experts led by the economists Dean Jamison and Lawrence Summers have laid out a roadmap for “a grand convergence in global health” by 2035, when infectious, maternal, and child deaths everywhere in the world could be reduced to the levels found in the healthiest middle-income countries today,” Steven shares.
3: The most powerful contributor to this string of incredible successes? Science. “It is knowledge that is the key,” says Nobel Prize winning economist Angus Deaton.
The benefits of science are not “just high-tech pharmaceuticals such as vaccines, antibiotics, antiretrovirals, and deworming pills,” Steven writes. “They also comprise ideas; ideas that may be cheap to implement and obvious in retrospect, but which save millions of lives.”
Many of the health-related breakthroughs over the past decades are decidedly “low tech” and relatively inexpensive. Millions of lives have been saved as a result.
Ideas like “boiling, filtering, or adding bleach to water; washing hands; giving iodine supplements to pregnant women; breast-feeding and cuddling infants; defecating in latrines rather than in fields, streets, and waterways; protecting sleeping children with insecticide-impregnated bed nets; and treating diarrhea with a solution of salt and sugar in clean water,” notes Steven.
Reflection: Take a moment to be grateful for the advances in medical care and resulting increase in human life.
Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague.