Bill Gates wants to eradicate the disease in the next two years. But that’s tricky, and are we even right to try?by Elizabeth Pisani / February 23, 2011 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2011 issue of Prospect Magazine
It’s not often that I admit to being born in Cincinnati, Ohio. Less often still that I admit to being born 46 years ago. I fess up now because of Aidan Cockburn, assistant commissioner of health in Cincinnati in the year I was born. Cockburn wrote a book, The Evolution and Eradication of Infectious Diseases (1963), in which he speculated that a number of infectious diseases could be wiped out entirely: smallpox, malaria, tuberculosis, cholera, polio and yaws.
He was inspired to this view in part because Cincinnati was the site of some of the earliest mass trials of polio vaccination, first with Jonas Salk’s injected vaccine in 1954-56, then with Albert Sabin’s oral dosing four years later. In 1960, there were no reported cases of locally acquired polio in the stolid midwestern city of my birth.
Cockburn’s belief that it was possible to wipe diseases off the face of the Earth appeared vindicated when the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared the world free of smallpox in 1979. It was a colossal victory for the public health establishment; one that we have singularly failed to repeat with any other human disease. The WHO put polio in the crosshairs in 1988, when the disease was paralysing an estimated 350,000 children a year across the world. It valiantly set the virus’s death sentence for the year 2000. It didn’t make the deadline, but the result is still admirable: worldwide, fewer than 1,000 cases of paralytic polio were reported in 2010.