When a disease achieves “celebrity status” – garnering attention and resources – there is bound to be resentment among those working on other conditions that have been overlooked.
HIV/Aids came to global notice in the 1980s and 1990s and sucked in funds on a scale hitherto undreamt of in the developing world. Meanwhile, malaria, tuberculosis and, the biggest child killer of all, diarrhoeal disease were neglected, opening up sharp divisions in the aid world.
Today the world is facing a similar situation with polio. Thanks to eradication efforts over the past 25 years, the total of cases worldwide has been reduced by 99 per cent, to just 222 last year. For the generation that remembers the outbreaks in 1950s Britain, Europe and the US, when thousands of children died or were left paralysed and panic gripped parents, that is an astonishing achievement.
But the work is not cheap – $9bn has been spent so far – with an estimated $5.5bn required to root out the last couple of hundred cases, equivalent to $25m for each case. Health workers running routine immunisation programmes for measles, diphtheria and other lethal diseases complain that all the focus has been on polio.
Local people protest, during the frequent polio immunisation days, telling health workers bitterly: “You only give us polio drops, but we have so many other problems.”
Of course, those last cases won't be "rooted out." They'll just be identified, and the victims will get very little aid. The money is going to prevent hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of future cases. The vast majority of those saved will lead healthier and more productive lives—a very good return on $5.5 billion or whatever it takes.
But the editorial has a valid point: We tend to play favourites with diseases, and to focus our efforts on the favourites. When we really can eradicate a disease from the face of the earth, it's worth it. But the neglected diseases, the unglamorous diseases, the diseases we personally are unlikely to contract—those are the diseases we should planning to battle as well.