But we’re also incredibly good at overcoming grand challenges and, over the long-run, increasing access to abundance.
In today’s blog, I’ll look at how a combination of innovation, policy, and hard work helped us face and ultimately solve two disease-related grand challenges: smallpox and polio (in the US).
These are what I call “Category 1 Problems,” past challenges that at first seemed insurmountable, but which we eventually solved through our ingenuity and collective willpower.
We’ll also explore several additional problems that we have either solved or made significant progress toward solving.
Let’s dive in…
The Eradication of Smallpox: Problem Solved
Smallpox, the dreadful “spotted death,” had been humanity's persistent nemesis for thousands of years, tracing its lineage back to its zoonotic roots some 3,000 years ago.
From Egyptian pharaohs to Chinese peasants, no one was immune. Its insidious power lay in its high contagion and mortality rates, killing 30% of those it infected. By the 20th century, it claimed between 300 and 500 million lives globally.
The tiny virus caused havoc on an enormous scale. Its symptoms ranged from fever and tremors in infants, to the disfiguring rash that left survivors marked for life. From the time Europeans introduced it to the New World in the 16th century, it decimated up to 90% of some Indigenous populations.
Then entered a transformative scientific innovation—the vaccine, thanks to Edward Jenner. His monumental work in 1796, grounded in the age-old method of inoculation, was to prevent smallpox infections, utilizing the immunizing effects of a milder cowpox infection. This breakthrough catalyzed a global movement towards eradication, with the US Congress passing legislation for smallpox vaccination in 1813.
The 20th century, however, saw a resurgence of outbreaks with the advent of international travel. While richer countries managed to contain the disease through regular vaccination, the less fortunate ones still fell prey to its devastating effects.
In the face of this, the newly formed World Health Organization (WHO) took the helm, launching an intensified plan in 1967 for smallpox eradication through widespread immunization, surveillance, and an innovative “ring vaccination” strategy. Despite initial skepticism, their efforts bore fruit—by December 9, 1979, smallpox was confirmed to have been eradicated, officially declared by the World Health Assembly five months later.
Now, over 40 years later, smallpox remains the only infectious disease we've managed to erase from our midst, a triumph we often take for granted.
According to the WHO, “This remains among the most notable and profound public health successes in history.”
The Eradication of Polio in the US: Problem Solved
In the early 20th century, the specter of polio cast a long shadow across the United States.
An enigmatic, brutal, and relentless adversary, the polio virus first gripped the nation in a major epidemic in 1894. However, the fear hit fever pitch in the 1950s, turning summertime, a season of joy and freedom, into a period of dread known as "polio season."
The fear wasn't baseless. In 1952, almost 60,000 children were infected, thousands were left paralyzed, and over 3,000 lost their lives. The virus played no favorites—it brought both rich and poor to their knees. Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, a future president, was not immune. His battle with polio, although kept under wraps, brought this silent enemy into the limelight.
President Harry Truman, recognizing the existential threat posed by polio, rallied the nation with these words: "The fight against infantile paralysis cannot be a local war. It must be nationwide. It must be total war in every city, town, and village throughout the land. For only with a united front can we ever hope to win any war."
And win we did. The arrival of the polio vaccine, developed by Jonas Salk, in 1955 was greeted with nationwide relief and jubilation. No longer would summer bring dread. The iron lungs that kept victims alive were relegated to the pages of history. By 1979, the US had turned the tide, recording its last case of polio.
The extraordinary victory over polio did not stop at US borders. The war shifted globally with the establishment of the “Global Polio Eradication Initiative” in 1988. The figures speak for themselves: by 2016, paralytic cases had been reduced by 99.99%. In 2022, only 30 cases were reported in regions still fighting the virus.
The polio story is a stark reminder of the power of human resolve, the strength of unified action, and the miracles of science.
Today, polio, once a dreaded monster, is but a distant memory in the US. Yet, it also serves as a call to arms, reminding us that the fight isn't over until polio is but a footnote in the annals of global history.
A Few Others…
As we wrap up a look at Category 1 Problems, it’s worth noting a few additional areas where we clever humans have either solved the problem through innovation or policy, or at a minimum have made changes that have us heading in the right direction.
HIV/AIDS Treatment: While not completely eradicated, the development of antiretroviral therapy has transformed HIV/AIDS from a death sentence into a manageable chronic condition for many people. Perhaps even more exciting is the prospect of an HIV vaccine currently in human trials.
Lead Poisoning: The phaseout of lead in gasoline, paint, and plumbing has significantly reduced lead poisoning worldwide. This was achieved through policy changes and the development of alternatives, such as unleaded gasoline.
Deforestation: While deforestation continues to be a problem, particularly in the tropics, reforestation, and afforestation efforts in countries like China and technological innovations in sustainable agriculture have helped to slow the rate of global deforestation.
Waterborne Diseases: Innovations in water treatment, such as chlorination and filtration, have dramatically reduced the incidence of waterborne diseases in many parts of the world.
Air Pollution: While air pollution remains a significant problem, particularly in developing countries, advancements in emission control technologies and policies to regulate industrial emissions have led to improvements in air quality in many cities.
Marine Pollution: International agreements and improved waste management practices have helped to reduce marine pollution. Innovations in material sciences, such as the development of biodegradable plastics, also hold promise for reducing plastic pollution in the oceans.
Nuclear Accidents: The international community has made significant strides in improving the safety of nuclear power plants and managing nuclear waste to prevent accidents like Chernobyl and Fukushima.
Oil Spills: While oil spills still occur, advancements in cleanup technologies and stricter regulations have reduced their frequency and impact.
These examples illustrate how technology, policy, and international cooperation can help to address global challenges. However, it's important to note that many of these issues are ongoing and require continued effort to fully resolve.
Why This Matters
When faced with seemingly insurmountable odds, humanity doesn't just hope for a better tomorrow—we create it.
And with rapidly advancing technologies such as AI and biotech, our ability to solve problems and create a world of abundance is only expanding.
But we do face real challenges ahead, what I call “Category 2 Problems,” dangers and threats that can’t be ignored and deserve the attention of our greatest minds. These challenges are the subject of the next few blogs in this series.
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