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Ridding the World of Diseases Forever

By Nancy Leys Stepan
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Eradication by Nancy Leys Stepan

Eradication (2011) is about the health community’s attempts to eradicate certain diseases from the face of the planet. These blinks trace the history of disease eradication, its successes and failures, and the complicated political issues it raises.

Key idea 1 of 8

The eradication of disease is now theoretically possible, but it raises many questions.

It would be a good thing if we eradicated all diseases, right? Thanks to scientific advancements, we’re getting closer to being able to do that every day.

The eradication of disease has been a possibility since the nineteenth century, when scientists first realized what causes them. Robert Koch, for instance, discovered in 1882 that tuberculosis was caused by bacteria called tubercle bacillus. Scientists came to understand that tiny organisms like bacteria, viruses and parasites were responsible for disease.

The scientific community also realized that disease-causing organisms were often spread by insects, such as mosquitoes. At the end of the nineteenth century, Ronald Ross and Giovanni Batista Grassi found that malaria was carried by female mosquitoes of the anopheline genus.

Once they uncovered a disease’s origin, scientists were able to work on preventing it by developing new technologies like vaccines. Eradication was suddenly a possibility!

And if scientists were able to eradicate a disease, they should have, right?

After WWII, when scientists undertook eradication campaigns against smallpox and malaria, we learned the answer was more complicated than we thought. Few would argue against the elimination of those diseases, but some questioned the integrity of eradication as a philosophical concept.

Eradication raises a number of questions such as: How do we choose which diseases to eradicate? How do we allocate eradication funding? These questions are biological, political and logistical all at once, so there are plenty of places where mistakes could be made.

Consider malaria. We’ve undertaken huge eradication campaigns against malaria but, according to the World Health Organization, it still affects 250 million people per year. Has this been a waste of resources? Would funds be better spent elsewhere?

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