Ruth Bishop’s life is a reminder of the importance of scientific research to uncover unknown pathogens and the power of vaccines to prevent suffering and save lives.
I ended 2013 by compiling something slightly unusual: a list of some of the good news you might have missed. I thought it was a pretty good note to end the year on, and people seemed to like reading about some of the ways the world is becoming a better place. This year, I thought I’d do it again.
Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that it’s been a turbulent year, in the United States and many other countries. But it’s worth taking a moment to celebrate some of the good news too. More children are surviving than ever before. We’re making progress against some of the world’s deadliest diseases. These are some of the most fundamental ways to measure the world’s progress—and by that measure, 2014 was definitely another good year.
To me, one of the best ways to measure progress is to look at how many children are dying of preventable causes. And today, more kids are living to see their fifth birthday than ever before. This year, for at least the 42nd year in a row, the child mortality rate has fallen. And it’s not just moving in the right direction—it’s falling faster than anyone expected. The Economist ran a great article about this in September, where it estimated that just since 2001, the world has saved 13.6 million children’s lives. It’s hard to think of a better sign the world is improving.
The world has done an impressive job of providing treatment to people living with HIV. But for years we were falling behind, because for all the people who started getting treatment, even more would become infected. Not anymore, though. New data released this month show that 2013 was the first year when more people started getting treatment than became infected with HIV. Why does that matter? Because treating people not only keeps them alive, it also dramatically reduces the odds that they will pass the virus on to anyone else. As the epidemiologists say, we can start to bend the curve of the disease. We still have a long way to go before we can declare the end of AIDS, but this is a big milestone.
When I read an article in the late 1990s that mentioned a diarrheal disease called rotavirus killed hundreds of thousands of kids a year, I couldn’t believe something I’d never even heard of was killing that many children. But rotavirus doesn’t get much press because it’s almost never deadly in rich countries—and the world tends to ignore diseases that only affect the world’s poorest people. In many ways, rotavirus was a catalyst for my commitment to global health—in fact, one of our foundation’s first grants supported efforts against rotavirus. Since then, the number of kids dying from this illness has been cut nearly in half thanks to a cheap and effective vaccine. And today, that vaccine is reaching more kids than ever before. For example in India, where rota kills nearly 80,000 children a year, the government decided this year to deliver the vaccine for free to poor children. And manufacturers there are working on a more affordable vaccine that could reach even more children in the coming years.
The world is way overdue for a better tuberculosis treatment. TB is one of the world’s leading causes of death, and our existing treatments are inadequate—especially for drug resistant forms of the disease. But efforts to improve them have been stalled for decades. So it’s a big deal that earlier this year, scientists announced that a new TB treatment regimen has proven effective in early-phase research. From here, the drug regimen goes on to a large clinical trial to confirm the results. If this new treatment regimen pans out, it could dramatically reduce the time it takes to cure drug-resistant TB and save poor countries billions of dollars in health-care costs.
A lot of the media coverage about Nigeria this year focused on two things: Ebola and terrorism. Both are frightening, and they masked the fact that from a global health perspective, Nigeria actually had a pretty good year. Although it’s one of only three countries that have never been free from polio (Pakistan and Afghanistan are the other two), I don’t think it will be on that list for long. Nigeria has reported only six cases of polio this year, compared to more than 50 last year. What’s more, the infrastructure Nigeria has built to fight polio actually made it easier for them to swiftly contain Ebola. The fact that Nigeria is now Ebola free is a great example of how doing the work to fight things like fighting polio also leaves countries better prepared to deal with outbreaks of other diseases.
One more thing: this January, Melinda and I will publish our annual letter. This year, we’re looking ahead to 2030. We’ll be writing about a few areas—from health to farming and banking—where life will really change, especially for people in some of the world’s poorest places. (Spoiler alert: we think there’s a lot more progress ahead.) If you’d like to get an e-mail notice when the letter is out, you can sign up below.