The rocky road toward disease eradication

Health workers go door-to-door as part of efforts to control and prevent leprosy in South America. Photo by: Pan American Health Organization / CC BY-NC

LONDON and BARCELONA — What does it take to eradicate a disease? As the global health community faces cuts to disease eradication efforts by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, many are beginning to wonder if the victories of the past, namely the worldwide eradication of the deadly smallpox virus in 1980, will ever be replicated in the fight against some of humankind’s oldest and most pernicious global health threats.

Philip Downs, technical director for neglected tropical diseases at Sightsavers told Devex that efforts to eliminate trachoma, a painful bacterial eye disease that causes irreversible blindness, saw huge strides forward when the global health community collaborated on an effort to map the disease.

“It was a turning point,” Downs said. “This was a project that tried to standardize an approach for collecting high-quality data, and that was a gamechanger in the sense that before that, there were only really rough estimates of where the problem was.”

For paralysis-causing polio, now within sight of eradication, the global health community is already taking lessons for future initiatives. Thanks to international collaboration and the leadership of national governments, polio cases have fallen from 350,000 new cases in 1988, to a reported 37 in 2016.

The story of polio eradication began in 1988, when the World Health Assembly adopted a resolution for the worldwide eradication of polio. It launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, an effort led by national governments, WHO, Rotary International, the CDC, UNICEF, and key partners including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, polio expert Carol Pandak at Rotary International told Devex.

As the world health community faces potential funding cuts to efforts to tackle the world's deadliest diseases, Devex takes a look at lessons learned from three watershed disease eradication efforts.

For the bacterial disease leprosy, global health efforts must overcome a snag in political and public will before they tackle the last mile. Between 1981 and early 2000s, cases dropped by almost 99 percent in large part due to greater attention from WHO, the Nippon Foundation and thanks to a partnership with Novartis which provided medicines for leprosy sufferers worldwide free of cost. But in the last decade, the number of new cases has plateaued, with more than 216,000 new cases reported in 2016.

But Ann Aerts, head of the Novartis Foundation, told Devex that Novartis has just launched a new initiative to jump start gains against leprosy, called the Global Partnership for Zero Leprosy, a coalition of public institutions and civil society organizations. It includes the International Federation of Anti-Leprosy Associations, and the International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement, with representation from national leprosy programs, scientific organizations and the academic community, and with support from the World Health Organization.

The partnership will mirror those of other successful eradication initiatives, she said, and bring together the technological, operational, and regulatory power needed to finally put an end to leprosy.

“The last miles are the most difficult ones,” Aerts said, “and it shows also that we have to be more innovative ways to fight this disease and make it history once and for all.”

About the authors

  • Molly%2520anders%2520cropped

    Molly Anders

    Molly Anders is a U.K. Correspondent for Devex. Based in London, she reports on development finance trends with a focus on British and European institutions. She is especially interested in evidence-based development and women’s economic empowerment, as well as innovative financing for the protection of migrants and refugees. Molly is a former Fulbright Scholar and studied Arabic in Syria, Jordan, Egypt and Morocco.
  • Mihara naomi

    Naomi Mihara

    Naomi Mihara is a video journalist for Devex, based in Barcelona. She has a background in journalism and international development, having previously worked as an assistant correspondent for Japan's Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper and as a communications officer for the International Organization for Migration in Southeast Asia. She holds a master's degree in multimedia journalism from Bournemouth University.