The COVID-19 pandemic has dominated the news for over a year as populations battled 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 — 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 six major health wins you may not have heard about that deserve celebration.
1. China has eliminated malaria.
After a 70-year effort to eradicate malaria — which at one point resulted in 30 million cases annually — the WHO has officially declared China free of the infectious disease. Malaria is responsible for the death 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.
2. 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.
Now, the WHO and UNICEF have declared an end to the polio outbreak in the Philippines, owing to the 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 to be completely eradicated, after smallpox.
3. Scientists have developed a highly-effective malaria vaccine after decades of research.
Malaria is one of 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 have shown high enough efficacy rates to provide hope that the disease can be eradicated.
Until now. In April, the Jenner Institute of Oxford University announced that phase two trials of their malaria vaccine achieved 77% efficacy, surpassing the WHO’s goal of developing a vaccine that allows 75% efficacy against clinical malaria.
Some public health experts say the race to develop an effective malaria vaccine has been stalled by low investment and demand, particularly since malaria predominantly affects low-income countries. As the Jenner Institute continues to host trials in areas that have a high risk of malaria, this vaccine could be a gamechanger and prevent the deaths of thousands of people.
4. Guinea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo declare an end to respective 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 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 and killed over 11,000 people. To prevent the spread of the disease, Guinea launched a vaccination drive based on lessons from the 2014 outbreak. Now, the WHO has 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.
5. 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. France also announced plans to roll out free pads, tampons, and sanitary items in high schools, while Scotland became the first nation to make period products free last November.
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.
If more governments announce initiatives to make period products free, period poverty and the stigma associated with menstruation can end and lead to better health outcomes for all people.
6. The Gambia eliminated trachoma as a public health problem.
The neglected tropical disease 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 has successfully beaten the disease.
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.
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on June 21 and has been updated to include that China has eliminated malaria.