It once was stated that “man’s weakness is not achieving victories, but in taking advantage of them.” This is the case for global infection control. We have so far eradicated only a single major infectious disease threat, a feat accomplished through the leadership of Dr. D.A. Henderson, who passed away in 2016 at the age of 87.
Beginning in 1966, Henderson led a global effort based at the World Health Organization (WHO) to accelerate smallpox vaccinations. In an extraordinary campaign that required vaccinating people in the poorest and most remote areas of the world (detailed in his book Smallpox: The Death of a Disease), the disease vanished, with the last known naturally transmitted case of smallpox occurring in 1977.
Ever since, we have made great strides in the global control of infectious diseases, even progress toward disease eradication. Frequently, though, the endgame has been disrupted by an unexpected turn of events. In a recent book, I estimated that most of the world’s poverty-related neglected diseases are paradoxically found in G20 nations. There are at least half a dozen diseases for which elimination or eradication would be feasible were it not for war or national turmoil, political malaise or a growing anti-vaccine movement.