Friday, 18 February 2011

Disease eradication, competition and clean water

A little while ago, US news media and global health blogosphere were awash with news of Bill Gates and the drive to eradicate polio; to make it only the second disease ever to be eliminated. On the other side of the world, Jimmy Carter is pretty determined to make Guinea worm the next eliminated disease. Since 1979, when smallpox was eradicated, humanity has failed to make another disease history. Now two big names are driving campaigns to end the suffering of many by eradicating these diseases.

This could be a good thing. Talking about eradicating a disease focuses attention on the disease and presents a concrete goal that can mobilize people to give more and help more and support the cause more. And it will be fantastic if either of these campaigns succeeds. Is it a good thing that these campaigns exist simultaneously? Is the potential for competition harmful or helpful? I'd love to see some discussion of this question.

The campaigns also, potentially, create a space to focus attention on water and sanitation. Both these diseases occur where people do not have access to clean water and proper sanitation. Disease eradication is amazing but it won't change people's long-term poverty situation (although there are benefits in terms of productivity lost, etc.) or give them clean water. It would be great if these campaigns could keep people aware of the context of the diseases as well as the diseases themselves, so that help doesn't dry up as soon as the eradication of a disease is announced. Then again, that would probably undermine the usefulness of eradication as a concrete, final goal. Sometimes ongoing impact of marketing and fundraising strategies lasts long beyond the end of a particular campaign. Will that, in these particular cases, be a good thing or a bad thing?

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