The Fight Against Sickness
“FUTURE nations will know by history only that the loathsome smallpox has existed,” wrote America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson, in 1806. This was part of a letter congratulating the British physician Edward Jenner on his discovery of vaccination.
However, as recently as 1967 an estimated 2,000,000 people died from smallpox. But a global campaign by the World Health Organization seemed to succeed in eradicating this dreaded disease by 1979. At last, after 173 years, Jefferson’s prediction appeared to have come true.
In 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming discovered the first antibiotic—penicillin. It is used in the treatment of blood poisoning, pneumonia, meningitis and many other diseases. “The story of penicillin is one of the most dramatic in the history of medicine,” states Black’s Medical Dictionary, comparing penicillin to the introduction of anesthetics and antiseptics.
During the 19th century the major cause of death was tuberculosis. Chopin, Paganini, Rhodes and many other famous people suffered from it. In 1906 two Frenchmen, Calmette and Guérin, developed a helpful vaccine. And in 1944 streptomycin was discovered. With these and other helps “the white plague,” as TB is at times called, has been almost defeated in developed lands.
However, TB is now rife in underdeveloped areas, and even in some developing societies. For example, in South Africa there is an average of 45,000 new cases every year. Thousands die. While effective vaccines exist to combat measles, polio, diphtheria and other childhood diseases, millions of children die from them every year in less developed lands.
Meanwhile, in some Western societies other diseases have increased alarmingly. According to the South Africa Medical Post, about 70 percent of their populations now die from heart disease, stroke and cancer.
Although escaping death, many victims of disease become permanently disabled. In 1981 former UN secretary-general Kurt Waldheim warned that the present 400 million disabled people in the world could rise to 500 million by the year 2000. Does this mean, then, that science, with all its marvelous discoveries and progress, is actually losing the fight against sickness? What do the facts of our times show?