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The most important health wins of 2019

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2019 has been an eventful year. With so much happening in the world, it’s easy to overlook progress and news worth celebrating, including positive movement in the world of global health.

There’s still a lot of work to do in fighting diseases and getting everyone access to the care they need. But this year, we’ve made undeniable strides towards a healthier future for all.

Here are some of the most important health wins we’ve seen this year:

Eradicating wild polio is within reach

This year, we’ve reached some vitally important milestones in eradicating wild polio. This highly infectious viral disease, which can cause irreversible paralysis or even death, has been around for millenia. Now, so many centuries later, we may be nearing the end of the fight.

With only one type of wild polio left in two countries, eradicating it for good is more possible now than ever before

In August, Nigeria — the last country in Africa to experience an outbreak — reached three years without a case. As a result, it’s possible that the entire continent will be officially certified polio-free next year.

Just two months later, the World Health Organization declared that wild poliovirus type 3 is officially eradicated. Wild poliovirus 2 was eradicated in 2015, and wild poliovirus 1 only remains in Afghanistan and Pakistan. With only one type of wild polio left in two countries, eradicating it is more possible now than ever before.

We can be the generation to end HIV

Almost 38 million people worldwide are living with HIV, with over 4,600 more diagnoses every day. Though there’s still a long road ahead, the end of HIV is possible — and it may be closer than you think.

This year, a man sustained remission from HIV, only the second time in history that this has happened.

In May, The Lancet confirmed that antiretroviral therapy (ART) can prevent HIV transmission between men who have sex with men. Past studies have confirmed this for heterosexual couples, but this new announcement means that ART can prevent transmission for even more people.

In other words, we have the tools we need to tackle the spread of HIV. Now, we must focus on access to treatment. Currently, 24.5 million people living with HIV are receiving antiretroviral therapy, but we can’t end the AIDS crisis until everyone is able to access treatment.

“While we should be proud that 24.5 million people around the world are now on life-saving HIV treatment, we cannot accept that 770,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses in 2018,” says Winnie Byanyima, Executive Director of UNAIDS.

Closer to a cure

There was more promising news in the fight against HIV this year. This year, a man sustained remission from HIV, only the second time in history that this has happened. This man, known as the “London patient,” received stem cell transplants to treat illnesses unrelated to his HIV status. The transplant, combined with ART, has resulted in an undetectable viral load. This means there is so little of the virus in his blood that tests can’t detect it. Although he still has the virus, having an undetectable viral load means that the virus isn’t transmittable and greatly reduces the chances of HIV-related illness.

This has happened one other time, 10 years ago with the “Berlin patient,” who underwent two bone marrow transplants. At the time, doctors assumed there was something special about the patient that lead to his remission. Now that another person is functionally cured of HIV, researchers have a clearer path forward to develop a cure.

There’s a prequalified vaccine for Ebola

In August 2018, the world entered its ninth Ebola outbreak when the DRC reported 26 cases in the North Kivu Province. With a large population, shared national and international borders, and active conflict, this location poses challenges to the health workers trying to contain the disease and treat those who are infected. Since August 2018, over 2,200 people in at least two countries have died from Ebola.

“With a prequalified vaccine and experimental therapeutics, Ebola is now preventable and treatable.”

But there’s now a new tool available to combat the disease. WHO has prequalified an Ebola vaccine, meaning that there is now a safe and quality-assured vaccine available to prevent Ebola. Although licenced doses won’t be available until mid-2020, this is a major step in fighting against the outbreak, and preventing future outbreaks.

“Five years ago, we had no vaccine and no therapeutics for Ebola,” says Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General. “With a prequalified vaccine and experimental therapeutics, Ebola is now preventable and treatable.”

Malawi pilots the world’s first malaria vaccine

Every year, 405,000 die from malaria. Preventative measures such as bed nets and mosquito repellent are essential to protecting those vulnerable to the disease, but progress in combatting malaria has stagnated in the past few years.

But now, there’s a new solution in preventing malaria. A new vaccine, RTS,S, is the first and only vaccine proven to reduce malaria in children. In clinical trials, the vaccine prevented four out of 10 malaria cases, including cases of severe malaria. WHO believes this vaccine has the potential to save tens of thousands of lives.

The Government of Malawi launched the world’s first malaria vaccine in 2019 as part of a pilot programme. Then Kenya and Ghana began their own pilot programmes a few weeks later. The results of these programmes will help WHO make recommendations on how to use the vaccine more broadly across the world.

Sierra Leone Bans FGM

“We want to know what they will do to protect women, and how they will make sure the ban is enforced.”

Female genital mutilation (FGM) is not only a gender equality issue. The practice harms the health of girls, from short-term risks like infections and even death, to long-term risks like obstetric complications.

This year saw important steps to end FGM, including in Sierra Leone, which has one of the highest rates of FGM in Africa. The government banned FGM after the death of a 10-year-old girl in 2018. Anti-FGM activist and former minister Rugiatu Turay believes that — while there is still work to be done — the ban is “a step in the right direction” towards ending the practice

“We want to know what they will do to protect women, and how they will make sure the ban is enforced.”

A historic pledge

Through most of 2019, we focused on the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Global Fund is a crucial tool in combating these diseases by providing prevention, treatment, education, resources and more.

In October, the Global Fund received a historic US$14 billion in pledges to continue their vital health work. That’s the biggest replenishment of any multilateral health organisation in history! With this new funding, the Global Fund will help save 16 million more lives over the next three years and continue their work towards ending these diseases.

Despite strong partisanship and global critics of aid, this pledge proves the world’s commitment to investing in global health, which benefits all of us.

Looking ahead

There’s no doubt that we’ve seen some important victories for global health this year. And these wins will help move us forward into even more in 2020.

Next year, we’ll be working with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance to make sure all children can access the vaccines they need. If we keep the fight against preventable diseases going in 2020, who knows what new health wins lie ahead of us!

Are you ready to be part of the fight for good global health? Become a ONE supporter today and stay up-to-date on the fight against preventable diseases!

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