It’s easy to feel pessimistic about the health of the world’s population. The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, the dramatic rise in obesity-related diseases and problems associated with an ageing population are all cause for concern.
But how about the diseases that mankind is winning the fight against? There was a time when it was commonplace for people across the globe to die horrific, painful deaths from illnesses they couldn’t be cured of.
Today, many of these diseases are no longer a major threat. All because of the power of vaccines.
So today, let’s have a look at some of the worst diseases the world has almost forgotten about, all thanks to the vaccines.
Smallpox is an acute contagious disease caused by the variola virus, a member of the orthopoxvirus family. It was one of the most devastating diseases known to humanity and caused millions of deaths before it was eradicated. It is believed to have existed for at least 3000 years. The symptoms of smallpox included a high fever, fatigue, a headache, and a backache. After 2 to 3 days of illness, a flat, red rash used to appear. It usually would start on the face and upper arms, and then it spreads all over your body.
The smallpox vaccine, created by Edward Jenner in 1796, was the first successful vaccine to be developed. He observed that milkmaids who previously had caught cowpox did not catch smallpox and showed that a similar vaccination could be used to prevent smallpox in other people.
The World Health Organization launched an intensified plan to eradicate smallpox in 1967. Widespread immunisation and surveillance were conducted around the world for several years. The last known natural case was in Somalia in 1977. In 1980 WHO declared smallpox eradicated – the only infectious disease to achieve this distinction. This remains among the most notable and profound public health successes in history.
Polio is a crippling and sometimes deadly infectious disease for which there is no cure.
While most people who catch the disease recover fully, in about 1% of the cases polio can cause permanent physical disabilities. The virus spreads along the nerve fibers in the spinal cord and eats away at the nerves inside those areas of the body that allow us to move.
Among those who become paralyzed with polio, about 5-10% die when the muscles that control their breathing are rendered immobile by the virus.
With a cheap and effective vaccine, cases of polio across the world have plunged by nearly 99% since 1988. Only three countries still see regular cases of polio: Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
Eradicating polio in India was a feat of dedication, commitment and simply doubling down on immunisation activities. Given India’s vast population, tropical climate in many parts of the country, and other environmental challenges, it would be easy to imagine that if polio couldn’t be stopped, India would be the place to fail.
Simply put: it was a challenge. After all, India constituted over 60% of all global polio cases as recently as 2009.
However, in 2014, India was officially declared polio-free, along with the rest of the South-East Asia Region. Thanks to the singular commitment of the Indian Government at all levels, partners of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, notably WHO, Rotary International and UNICEF, polio was tackled head-on. India has not had a single case of wild polio virus since 2011.
Guinea worm disease (GWD) is an infection caused by the parasite Dracunculus medinensis. A parasite is an organism that feeds off another organism to survive.
Guinea worm disease is exceedingly painful and can be permanently debilitating, especially in children.
The worm, which spreads via dirty drinking water, can destroy the muscles and tissue surrounding a knee or inside a foot. This could leave young children unable to walk for the rest of their lives.
In 1986 there were 3.5 million cases of Guinea worm reported globally. Today, that number has been reduced by more than 99.99 percent. In 2020, 27 human cases of Guinea worm disease were reported worldwide.
Guinea worm “is set to become the second human disease in history, after smallpox, to be eradicated.”
Like smallpox, measles is highly contagious. Its most serious complications include blindness, severe diarrhea, serious respiratory infections and brain swelling.
Measles can also have a crippling long-term effect on children’s immune systems, leaving them susceptible to other diseases. This makes the measles vaccine even more important.
Aside from localized outbreaks associated with parents refusing vaccinations for their children, measles has been largely eliminated in most countries. Deaths from measles across the globe have dropped by 75% since 2000.
While the virus is still common in many developing countries, particularly in parts of Africa and Asia, the WHO hopes to eliminate the disease globally soon.
Though most commonly associated with rust and infections caused by rusty nails, tetanus is actually not caused by rust itself. Rather, tetanus comes from the bacteria called Clostridium tetani. This bacteria can often be found on rusty surfaces. The disease is characterised by painful muscle spasms, most often in the jaw (thus the term “lockjaw” for the disease).
Luckily, the disease can be prevented with regular vaccination. In places where regular tetanus shots are given, the disease has been nearly eliminated. Although tetanus is an iillness that can be prevented using vaccines and WHO has declared that India has reached an elimination stage, its prevalence is still a major concern for our country.
Rinderpest is essentially the cattle equivalent of the measles virus. Though it is not a danger to humans (it only afflicts cattle and other ruminants, such as buffalo and deer), the virus has nevertheless been a major threat to humanity because of our reliance on these creatures as farm animals.
Death rates during outbreaks were usually extremely high, approaching 100% deaths. Rinderpest was mainly transmitted by direct contact and by drinking contaminated water, although it could also be transmitted by air.
After a vaccine was developed, the disease was targeted for global eradication by the World Organization for Animal Health in 1994.
The last confirmed case of the disease was in 2001, and in 2011 it was officially deemed eradicated.
As a true introvert, Raza Mehdi shudders at the thought of having to expose very much of himself willingly and with malice-aforethought. Writing online since 2008; fiction, poetry, and articles on science, politics, humour and history. When he is not working, he is either trekking in mountains or sleeping. In his own words, the most apt description of him would be: Biryani on social media, daal chawal in person.
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