But many of these gains are the result of global health becoming an international priority. The focus on global health—now overtly linked to national security, economic prosperity, and climate change—has become a trend in international development. New organizations and funding focused on global health have steadily grown. Hundreds of different governmental and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international organizations, governments, funds, and initiatives—such as the Gates Foundation, Doctors Without Borders, and the World Health Organization—now work on these issues. For example, Gavi, a vaccines-focused public-private partnership, has vaccinated 690 million children in less than twenty years since its founding.
The number of deaths from infectious diseases has shrunk significantly.
For thousands of years, smallpox ravaged parts of the globe, killing about one-third of those who caught it. But better science led to a new vaccine, which, combined with funding and political will, resulted in the official eradication of the disease in 1980. As recently as 1967, two million people died from smallpox—in just one year; now, no one does.
Polio has almost been eradicated too, although not entirely. Just thirty years ago, polio was common in 125 countries. Today, it’s endemic to just three: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Polio persists in large part because of the difficulty in delivering vaccines to these countries, either for geographical reasons—many people live in rural areas or move around frequently—or for political reasons, such as local mistrust of Western NGOs.
Despite a century of progress, infectious diseases remain a lingering threat. And global health gains haven’t been uniform.
Important progress has been made in preventing and treating HIV/AIDS. Deaths from HIV/AIDS have been nearly halved in just ten years. New HIV infections have also fallen, and in 2017, about twenty-one million people with HIV had access to antiretroviral therapy—up significantly from just eight million in 2010. But nearly forty million people still live with HIV/AIDS, the vast majority of them in Africa, despite the largest coordinated effort to counter an epidemic in modern times.