Bill and Melinda Gates’ annual letter is out, and it includes some lofty predictions for the future — especially in the way of public health.
The letter, which spells out the Gates’ hopes for the next 15 years, ambitiously predicts that by 2030 humans will have eradicated four diseases from Earth.
In all of human history, we’ve only managed to completely wipe out one: smallpox, which was declared eradicated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1980 following an aggressive global immunization campaign.
Now, with an arsenal of vaccines and other drugs becoming more widely available than ever, the Gates Foundation is confident we can wipe out four more in the next 15 years.
The letter isn’t specific on exactly which four diseases those will be, although it strongly predicts two of them: polio and Guinea worm. Other possible candidates for eradication identified in the letter include elephantiasis, river blindness, and blinding trachoma.
“The drugs that can stop these scourges are now being donated in huge numbers by pharmaceutical companies, and they’re being used more strategically thanks to advances in digital maps that show where diseases are most prevalent,” the Gates letter claims.
“We can get polio out of Africa this year and out of every country in the world in the next several years,” the letter states. Polio — short for poliomyelitis — is caused by a virus that invades the nervous system, causing fever, headaches, limb pain, and in some cases paralysis. There’s no cure once you have it, but there is an effective vaccine to prevent it.
Only three countries — Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan — remain polio-endemic, meaning that transmission of the disease is still common and sustained in those places. But the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that some scattered cases also cropped in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Syria in 2014 for a total of 350 cases worldwide.
But the WHO reports that the incidence of polio is down by more than 99% since 1988. And with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, still going strong, the Gates dream of global eradication may be within easy grasp.
Guinea worm is another disease specifically targeted in the Gates letter. The letter states: “Guinea worm, an incredibly painful disease whose sufferers spend months incapacitated while worms that can be several feet long burst out of their legs, will also be gone soon, thanks in large part to the leadership of President Jimmy Carter and the Carter Center.”
The Carter Center’s Guinea worm eradication program has existed since 1986. The disease itself is a bizarre and painful ordeal, caused by the roundworm Dracunculus medinisis. The parasite is usually contracted when the victim drinks stagnant, contaminated water. Once consumed, the Guinea worm can stay inside the body for up to a year and can grow to be several feet long.
Eventually, it emerges from the body by popping out of the skin, a painful process that often drives victims to bathe themselves in bodies of water to relieve the burning sensation. When this happens, the adult worm can release its larvae and reinfect the water source.
Luckily, many public health experts agree that Guinea worm is on track to be the second disease after smallpox to be totally eradicated. Since the disease is easily diagnosed and can be controlled with simple interventions like clean-water campaigns, the WHO identifies it as an eradicable disease. In 2014, only 126 cases were reported worldwide. Country by country, it is disappearing — on January 15, Ghana became the latest country to be declared Guinea worm free.
According to an announcement by Carter at the American Museum Of Natural History last week, “we know everybody who has Guinea worm.” Healthcare workers have those 126 people carefully isolated, so they shouldn’t be able to infect anyone else.
There are a lot more diseases out there that need attention, but we are on the right track, Gates says.