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Infectious Diseases – Achieving Extraordinary Progress

We can eradicate two diseases in the coming five years, and we must prepare to eradicate more. To do this WHO has to be a strategic, courageous and tenacious leader of multiple partners.

11 January 2017

There can be few achievements that better demonstrate the power of collective human effort than the ending of a disease. 35 years ago the world saw the last case of smallpox. We must push forward. We have the will and the way – the scientific tools and capabilities to eradicate two more diseases in the coming five years. And we must get ready to eradicate several more.

Eradicating a disease is extremely hard work, especially in the final stages. It requires that all concerned share a passionate commitment to excellence, and are prepared to trust each other, to be courageous together and to demonstrate tenacity - especially in adversity.

Polio - focus on completing the task

Just a generation ago polio was causing widespread paralysis and disability. We are so close to the end of polio: as with all such campaigns, the last part is the toughest. Many will have read about the recent cases of Polio in Nigeria – the first detected on the African continent since July 2014. These reports were disheartening, but should not distract us from the reality that we are closer than ever to confining polio to the history books. The news led to even more determined efforts: responders were energized, strategies were adjusted and action was intensified.

In Pakistan and Afghanistan, new levels of commitment, implementation and monitoring will lead to every last child being vaccinated. Robust accountability systems are leading to big improvements in performance. Yes, the costs of eradication have been huge - including the tragic deaths of some brave vaccinators while they are working for their people’s health. But the potential gains, in terms of ending a deadly and disabling disease, are massive. The investments made will be an outstanding contribution both to public health and global solidarity.

As Director-General I will work tirelessly with WHO’s partners in the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and in the three remaining endemic countries (Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria) to interrupt transmission of wild polio virus in 2017.

Guinea Worm

Guinea Worm is a parasitic infection that causes intense pain and severe disability. Thanks to the efforts of governments and partners, the geographic range of Guinea Worm has been dramatically reduced over the last two decades: fewer than 25 cases were recorded worldwide in 2015. WHO could – once again - be the force to catalyze the eradication of a terrible disease, this time ending the scourge of Guinea Worm within five years. What’s more, there are other neglected tropical diseases that affect millions of the world’s poorest people that are ripe for elimination, eradication or control.

Ending the Epidemics of HIV/AIDS, Malaria and TB

We must also make more progress on several other diseases. Poor people, especially poorer women and children, are most at risk from infectious diseases and benefit enormously when they are controlled. HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis (TB) have rightly been the focus of attention, action and finance over the last decade. I was involved in the creation of the Global Fund: I am delighted to see ways that nations have used its resources to achieve remarkable progress against all three diseases over the last 15 years. There have been particular benefits for people in poor communities: health systems have learned many lessons and are applying them to other urgent health issues. Hepatitis is also now in the frame.

World leaders have set targets within the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and it is for us to ensure that they are realized.

  • HIV/AIDS is still a major threat to life and health. Effective interventions are available: the remaining challenge is to mobilize sufficient funding, to encourage continuous innovation and to ensure relentless implementation, so as to reach the SDG goal of ending the epidemic by 2030.
  • Malaria is one of the greatest killers known to humankind. I headed the Roll Back Malaria partnership in the late 1990s: that was a time when the science revealed just how much impact could be achieved through determined, efficient and effective scaling-up of proven interventions in a way that is reliable, repeated and sustained. The number of deaths from malaria is down by about 60% since the year 2000. It is now evident that malaria can be eradicated within a generation. Even though large-scale and widespread challenges stand in the way, this is an opportunity the world must seize.
  • There has been exciting recent progress to combat tuberculosis (TB), but too many people are in danger because they are not detected or they have drug-resistant TB. HIV and TB often coexist so combined strategies are essential. Tackling TB needs concerted and intense effort – a consistent combination of innovation, energy, finance and partnering.

The Way Forward

The commitment of member states, the catalytic potential of WHO, the power of partnerships, the contribution of strategic science and the momentum of results-based finance are the ingredients needed for progress. WHO is called on to convene and energize all actors; to work with governments, banks, funds, scientists, civil society and businesses to catalyze greatly increased progress on HIV, malaria and TB. To do this WHO will need to intensify partnerships with Governments, the Global Fund, development banks and all others committed to results, and ensure these results are realized.