The first recorded polio epidemic was in Sweden in the 1880s, though inscriptions in Egypt suggest the disease dates back to ancient times. In 1916 the virus devastated New York and swathes of the north-eastern United States, killing six thousand people, mostly children, and leaving thousands more paralysed. Unlike other deadly epidemic diseases, such as tuberculosis, polio appeared to have no correlation to poverty. ‘Once the terror stalks, mere wealth cannot buy immunity,’ as the Ladies Home Journal put it in 1935. ‘The well-fed babies of the boulevards are no safer than gamins from the gutter from the mysterious universality of the crippling midget, once it’s on the rampage.’
Three gunmen stormed Kabul University on Monday, taking dozens of hostages as hundreds of students fled for their lives. The six-hour siege, for which Islamic State claimed responsibility, left at least 35 students dead and many more injured. Jamshid, an economics student, was in class. ‘We were listening to the teacher when the electricity went out and the attack began,’ he told me. ‘If we stayed in the classroom, I thought that maybe the terrorists will kill me and my classmates.’ He managed to escape. Sara, Daoud, Rauf, Ali, Husna and Ahmad did not. The list goes on. They were going to be teachers, nurses, scholars, writers, artists, public administrators, economists.
According to figures compiled by researchers at McGill University, the Covid-19 pandemic is predicted to cause an additional 400,000 malaria deaths this year; an additional 700,000 HIV-related deaths in Africa alone; 15 million unintended pregnancies; and up to 1.4 million additional tuberculosis deaths by 2025. The list continues: at least 80 million children under one are at risk of vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, rubella and polio, as routine immunisation services have been disrupted in almost 70 countries. There could be an additional 113,000 maternal deaths in the next 12 months because of disruption to care before, during and after childbirth.
We don’t know how many Australian Indigenous people lost their lives during the 1918 Spanish influenza pandemic; they weren’t counted in the country’s official statistics. When the 2009 H1N1 (Swine Flu) pandemic hit Australia, the Indigenous population recorded almost five times as many deaths as the non-Indigenous population. Now, as Covid-19 spreads across Australia, some doctors have warned that whole communities may be wiped out.
Health officials in Kerala have confirmed a number of deaths from Nipah virus in the south Indian state. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is an outbreak of Ebola. Earlier this year, a team of virologists, bacteriologists and infectious disease experts met at the World Health Organisation’s headquarters in Geneva to determine which diseases and pathogens pose the greatest public health risk because of their epidemic potential and an absence of effective drugs and vaccines for treatment and prevention. Both Nipah and Ebola are on the list. The 2018 Research and Development Blueprint, released in March, also includes Zika virus, Lassa fever (a viral haemorrhagic disease occurring primarily in West Africa), MERS-CoV and Sars – and something called Disease X.
When I landed at Kathmandu airport three years ago, not long after the earthquake that killed almost 9000 people, the streets were eerily quiet. Dim street lights shone down on the devastation. Buildings, monuments and houses had been reduced to rubble. Thousands were living in temporary shelters in rough conditions. But the damage to the capital paled in comparison to areas of the country closer to the epicentre of the earthquake, nearly 50 miles west of the city. Two million Nepalis had been made homeless. They had lost everything.
On receiving the 1945 Nobel Prize in Medicine for discovering penicillin, Alexander Fleming finished his lecture with a warning: ‘There is the danger,’ he said, ‘that the ignorant man may easily underdose himself and by exposing his microbes to non-lethal quantities of the drug make them resistant.’ Antibiotic resistance is now one of the biggest threats to global health, food security and development. It could kill as many as 10 million people a year by 2050.
Ousainou Sarr came to the UK from Gambia more than two decades ago. For two years he experienced typical tuberculosis symptoms – weight loss, profuse night sweats, a persistent cough – but his GP never suspected he might have TB. He was living rough on the streets of London, the TB capital of Western Europe, when the Find & Treat van offering TB screening arrived. The van is a specialist NHS outreach service that aims to tackle TB among homeless people, drug or alcohol users, vulnerable migrants and ex-prisoners across the UK, by providing screening and access to care. More than 9000 cases of TB were diagnosed in the UK last year.
The 21st International Aids Conference was in Durban last week. The last time it was held here, 16 years ago, Aids denialism in South Africa was rife, people were dying on the front lawns of hospitals, unable to access treatment, and President Thabo Mbeki had announced that Aids was caused not by a virus, but by poverty and poor nourishment. A lot of progress has been made since then.