What does it take to eradicate a disease?

What decides if a disease is eradicable?

After smallpox was eradicated in the 1970s, a swarm of activity followed in hopes of wiping out handfuls of other illnesses. Unfortunately, this just isn't possible. To clear up any confusion, The Carter Center, a nonprofit organization that aims to promote human rights, established the International Task Force for Disease Eradication. This task force set about identifying the factors that decide whether a disease can be eradicated. It pinpointed two main criteria: science and political will.

In terms of science, it comes down to researchers understanding the disease. This includes knowing:

  • whether animals can carry the disease.
  • how easy it is to diagnose, since some diseases remain dormant for years in a person's body without any signs or symptoms.
  • whether an effective, safe, inexpensive, long-lasting and easily deployed intervention is available.
  • if the disease can be eliminated from one specific geographic area before trying to eliminate the disease on a wider scale.

For example, while there's no medicine or vaccine for Guinea worm disease, the best way to prevent people from contracting it is through education. This involves preventing people from drinking water that contains the larvae and teaching people to filter their drinking water using a type of cloth that removes the fleas.

As for political will, it takes mass cooperation to eradicate a disease, including understanding the true burden or impact of the disease; the financial costs; and whether it can be combined with other interventions.

After reviewing and studying diseases, The Carter Center's Task Force for Disease Eradication decided that the following diseases could be eradicated:

  • Poliomyelitis (polio)
  • Dracunculiasis (Guinea worm)
  • Measles
  • Mumps
  • Rubella
  • Lymphatic filariasis
  • Cysticercosis