Editor's note: This article was originally published in July, and has been updated in December to reflect the year's continued health wins.
The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the news for two years as populations continue to battle rising infection rates and deaths. Though the threat of COVID-19 rightfully demanded the world’s attention — and still does, as countries struggle to access lifesaving vaccine doses amid emerging new variants — other health concerns have continued to plague regions around the world.
In February, the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced its fourth Ebola outbreak in three years, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Waterborne diseases like cholera and giardia continue to exist in areas where access to clean water is limited, though the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has underscored the importance of tracking outbreaks to limit infections.
While medical researchers have made steady progress on curbing the HIV pandemic, widespread inequalities may prevent the world from seeing an end to HIV/AIDS by 2030. To date, AIDS has taken almost 35 million lives globally.
Developing treatments and cures for infectious diseases takes years of research and testing by renowned scientists and international health centers to get right. It also requires significant investment and public demand to encourage progress.
Though it may seem like the most vulnerable populations will continue to suffer from health-related issues with no end in sight, there has been significant advancement in curbing disease outbreaks and ending stigma that prevents health concerns from being solved.
As the world continues to fight COVID-19, here are eight major health wins you may not have heard about this year that deserve celebration.
1. WHO Approves Malaria Vaccine
Malaria is one of the world’s oldest and deadliest diseases, killing hundreds of thousands of people every year. While scientists have been developing a malaria vaccine for years, no vaccine trials had yet shown high enough efficacy rates to provide hope that the disease can be eradicated.
Until now. In October the WHO approved the first vaccine for children at risk of malaria following positive results from an Oxford University trial that showed that the vaccine achieved 77% efficacy, surpassing the WHO’s goal of developing a vaccine that allows 75% efficacy against clinical malaria.
The vaccine has been in the works for over three decades, and is designed to stop the deadliest of the five primary strains of malaria, P. falciparum.
“We have long hoped for an effective malaria vaccine and now for the first time ever, we have such a vaccine recommended for widespread use,” said WHO Africa director, Dr. Matshidiso Moeti, in a statement. “Today’s recommendation offers a glimmer of hope for the continent which shoulders the heaviest burden of the disease and we expect many more African children to be protected from malaria and grow into healthy adults.”
2. China Eliminated Malaria
After a 70-year effort to eradicate malaria — which at one point resulted in 30 million cases in the country annually — the WHO has officially declared China free of the infectious disease. Malaria is responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people in China, the world’s most populous nation, making the news a celebration of the country’s targeted public health campaign.
For decades, public health officials in China worked to stop the spread of malaria through researching treatments and coordinating a nationwide malaria-prevention campaign, which includes reducing mosquito breeding grounds and distributing millions of insecticide-treated nets. These efforts have led to a substantial decrease in malaria cases, which allowed China to apply for the official WHO certification of malaria elimination in 2020 after recording zero indigenous cases the previous four years.
Now, China joins three other countries in the WHO Western Pacific Region — Australia, Singapore, and Brunei — to be awarded a malaria-free certification from the international public health agency.
While the risk of imported cases remains high, in part due to Chinese nationals returning from malaria-endemic regions, the country’s aggressive tracking and treatment coordination is a testament to the capability of public health campaigns and government investment to eradicate infectious diseases.
3. A New HIV Vaccine Trial Is Currently Underway
The first round of a new HIV vaccine clinical trial kicked off in Zambia at the beginning of August, and will also be extended to Kenya and Uganda. The vaccine, called HIVconsvX, is designed to fight different strains of HIV, which has proven to be a major obstacle in vaccine development in the past as different strains of the virus hail from different parts of the world.
The clinical trial is being run by the Globally Relevant AIDS Vaccine Europe-Africa Trials Partnership (GREAT), and is being led by the Jenner Institute of Oxford University.
“An effective HIV vaccine remains an essential but unrealised component of the HIV prevention toolkit and remains the most cost-effective and desirable solution to end the HIV epidemic,” said Dr. Paola Cicconi, Senior Clinical Research Fellow at the University of Oxford.
The results of the trial are set to be released at the end of 2022.
4. The WHO Declared the End of the Polio Outbreak in the Philippines
In 2019, the Philippines’ Department of Health announced a polio outbreak after 19 years of being polio-free. Since then, the government, WHO, and UNICEF Philippines have launched a widespread immunization campaign, which required the development of a surveillance system and the use of vaccines to inoculate vulnerable children.
In June, the WHO and UNICEF declared an end to the Philippines polio outbreak, owing to multilateral efforts and an effective support system.
Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by the poliovirus, which can be transmitted through contaminated water or contact with an infected person. Children under age 5 are particularly vulnerable to contracting polio, which can lead to paralysis and death.
Currently, the WHO reports that polio is endemic in only two countries — Afghanistan and Pakistan — giving it potential to become the second disease in history to be completely eradicated, after smallpox.
5. Guinea and the DRC Declare an End to Ebola Outbreaks.
Both Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo announced outbreaks of Ebola in February of this year, stressing their respective public health systems while also trying to manage infections and deaths from the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Guinea, the outbreak occurred in the N’Zérékoré prefecture, the same area where the 2014 West Africa Ebola epidemic began, which killed over 11,000 people. To prevent the spread of the disease, Guinea launched a vaccination drive based on lessons from the 2014 outbreak. In June, the WHO announced an end to the outbreak, which infected 16 people and killed 12, according to Al Jazeera.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo mounted similar efforts to curb the spread of infection after announcing an outbreak on Feb. 7. After 42 days with no new cases of Ebola, the country’s Ministry of Health and WHO declared an end to the outbreak in May.
6. More Nations Are Tackling Menstrual Stigma to End Period Poverty
In February, New Zealand announced that it would make menstrual products free for all students, joining a global trend of tackling period poverty — a global sanitation issue and public health crisis. Later in the same month, France also announced plans to roll out free pads, tampons, and sanitary items in high schools, while Namibia and the UK have also announced the elimination of tampon tax in their respective countries.
Though half of the world’s population menstruates, stigma surrounding menstruation has allowed period poverty to occur around the world. Students who cannot afford period products often skip school when they’re menstruating, and stigma prevents people from asking for help and resources, leading to hygiene and sanitation issues.
7. The Gambia Eliminated Trachoma as a Public Health Problem
The neglected tropical disease (NTD) trachoma is a bacterial infection that primarily affects the eye and can lead to blindness if left untreated. As a highly infectious disease, trachoma has been classified as a public health problem in 44 countries by the WHO.
As part of its efforts to curb infection rates of trachoma, The Gambia initiated an eye care program that developed policies to educate the public about trachoma and how to treat it. After decades of spreading awareness about trachoma, The Gambia announced in June that it had successfully beaten the disease.
8. Niger Becomes First African Country to Eradicate River Blindness
At the beginning of December, philanthropists Bill Gates and His Royal Highness, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed, the crowned prince of Abu Dhabi, announced that their philanthropic efforts had helped to rid Niger of river blindness — making it the first African country to eradicate the disease.
River blindness, or onchocerciasis, is an NTD that stems from a parasitic infection spread by flies that live near fast-flowing rivers and streams. It remains a problem in around 30 sub-Saharan African countries, and a handful of Latin American countries.
In a statement released on Dec. 10, Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed said: “Today’s announcement is not only an incredible achievement for Niger, but it also provides a blueprint for eliminating other neglected tropical diseases and thereby helping improve the lives of some of the most vulnerable people in the world.”
The WHO and Africa CDC have yet to release a statement on the health win.
As government leaders and public health agencies make strides to end the COVID-19 pandemic for everyone, everywhere, Global Citizens must demand increased investment in research to treat diseases that affect millions of people around the world.
The pandemic has shown us that global cooperation can lead to amazing progress. We need to continue these efforts to ensure equity for all people when tackling other public health concerns.