7 human diseases the world is on the cusp of eradicating

Jimmy Carter countdown to zeroKevin Loria/Business InsiderFormer President Jimmy Carter pointing out the progress made battling Guinea worm disease — from 3.5 million cases in 1986 to just 126 today.

Not too long ago, it was commonplace for people across the globe to die horrific, painful, disfiguring deaths from illnesses they couldn’t control.

Today, many of those diseases have begun to disappear, thanks in part to revolutionary science like the kind that just won three scientists the 2015 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Here are the seven diseases we are on the edge of wiping out completely:


Jim Goodson, M.P.H. / CDC
A baby with measles in hospital in Manila, the Philippines, in early 2014.

Like smallpox, measles is highly contagious. Its most serious complications include blindness, severe diarrhoea, serious respiratory infections, and encephalitis, a severe infection that causes brain swelling.

New research also finds that measles can have a crippling, sometimes long term effect on children's immune systems for years after an initial infection, leaving them susceptible to other infectious diseases. The vaccine, the research suggests, protects against this.

The good news is that aside from a scary outbreak in California last December -- which research suggests was caused by a growing number of parents refusing vaccinations for their children -- measles has been largely eliminated in most affluent countries, and deaths from measles across the globe have dropped by 75% since 2000.

Still, the virus is still common in many developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia, but the WHO has plans to eliminate the disease globally by 2020.


Getty Images/Paula Bronstein
Fawad Rahmani, 11, has had Polio since he was two. He lives in Kabul, Afghanistan, one of the few countries where people are still fighting the disease.

Polio is a crippling and sometimes deadly infectious disease. There is no cure.

Most cases of the disease -- somewhere between 90% and 95% -- cause no symptoms, making it easy for an infected person to get another person sick. In those cases, people can recover within a few weeks.

In about 1% of cases, however, or around 1 in 200 cases, polio can leave its sufferers with permanent physical disabilities. In these cases, the virus spreads along the pathways inside the nerve fibres in the spinal cord, brain stem, or motor cortex, the movement-controlling part of the brain. Once inside, polio eats away at the nerves inside these parts of the body that allow us to move. Among people with polio who become paralysed, about 5% to 10% die when the muscles that control their breathing are rendered immobile by the virus.

In the last 3 decades, cases of polio across the globe have plummeted, dropping nearly 99% since 1988. That year, the World Health Assembly resolved to globally eradicate polio, and several international health organisations joined in the effort to disseminate the vaccine worldwide.

As of last year, just 3 countries still see regular cases of polio: Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, and efforts are underway to eradicate the disease completely.

Guinea worm

The Carter Center/L. Gubb
Extracting a Guinea worm is a slow and painful process.

If you've never heard of Guinea worm, consider yourself lucky. It's caused by a parasite caused dracunculiasis which means 'affliction with little dragons' in Latin.

Like it sounds, Guinea worm is painful.

While not typically fatal, Guinea worm can be permanently debilitating, especially in children. As it winds its way through the body, the worm -- which thrives in dirty water -- can destroy the muscles and tissue surrounding a knee or inside a foot, for example, leaving young children unable to walk for the rest of their lives.

Fortunately for eradication efforts though, Guinea worm is caused by just a single parasite, meaning that so long as health workers can track down all the people infected with it and prevent any new cases of infection, they can wipe it out.

Today, there are just 126 cases of Guinea worm left globally, down from nearly 3.5 million in 1986. According to the health NGO The Carter Center, Guinea worm 'is set to become the second human disease in history, after smallpox, to be eradicated.'

Lymphatic filariasis (elephantiasis)

Someone with elephantiasis of the legs.

Lymphatic filariasis is caused by parasitic roundworms carried by mosquitoes and occurs in nearly 100 countries in Africa and Asia.

In many cases, people are first infected with the parasites as children, but the their damage to the immune system often goes unseen until adulthood, when they develop visible symptoms. The most noticeable of these is elephantiasis, or when parts of the body swell to massive proportions.

Using medicines like the one that just won the Nobel Prize, the WHO hopes to totally wipe out the illness by 2020. These treatments work by clearing baby parasites from the blood and stopping them from spreading to new mosquitoes. When this is done in an area repeatedly for about five years, it can wipe out the disease.

Onchocerciasis (river blindness)

An adult black fly with the Onchocerca volvulus parasite coming out of one of its antennae.

Like Guinea worm, river blindness is an infection caused by a parasite. Small, black flies that live near rivers across Sub-Saharan Africa and South America carry the worms that cause it.

Once they get inside the skin, the worms mate and reproduce. Each day, one worm can spawn another thousand baby worms. As they spread throughout the body of an infected person, the parasites infect the skin and eyes, where they can cause blindness, skin discoloration, intense itching and rashes.

Public health workers are working to limit the disease's spread with a medicine called Mectizan, which kills the parasite larvae in the body and keeps the virus from spreading to others. They have also had some success using Ivermectin, the treatment that just won the Nobel, to help prevent damage to the front of the eye in infected people.

Now that you've seen all the diseases we've almost wiped out, check out...

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