Promising new developments -- and disappointments -- in the battle against some of the major diseases plaguing the planet:
Smallpox - wiped off the face of the planet
Cancer - becoming better understood
Polio - gone in the West, potentially declining worldwide
AIDS - preventable but spreading
Malaria - treatable, preventable, but like HIV/AIDS, killing thousands more than it should for lack of resources
Bird Flu - the newest concern
It is rather a discouraging summary, although there are hopeful developments across the board. If a major killer, like smallpox, can be contained and eradicated, scientists say others can too.
The recent announcement of a major cancer initiative, constructing a cancer genome atlas, is a boost for research into that group of deadly killers. The National Institutes of Health is spending over $100 million to begin unraveling the genetic make-up of everything that makes a cell cancerous. By pulling together existing findings, new research technologies and resources, scientists are attacking the global cancer problem as never before.
Less encouraging, findings on AIDS. HIV infections still are increasing, with 40.3 million people infected worldwide. About 20 million have died of AIDS worldwide; about three million last year alone.
Doctor Anthony Fauci directs infectious disease research at the U.S. National Institutes of Health. He said, "AIDS has now clearly taken over, above tuberculosis as the leading cause of microbial death in the world. It surpassed malaria a few years ago. Now its beyond both malaria and tuberculosis."
Malaria still kills well over a million people a year, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa. But there are some promising new malaria vaccines, and the World Bank and President George Bush have announced a renewed assault on the killer disease spread by infected mosquitoes.
"The toll of malaria is even more tragic because the disease itself is highly treatable and preventable,” said the president. “Yet this is also our opportunity, because we know that large-scale action can defeat this disease in whole regions and the world must take action and our nation is prepared to lead."
More recently, the Gates Foundation announced nearly $260 million in grants supporting advanced development of a vaccine, new drugs, and improved mosquito control methods. Despite these positive steps, much more is required. It is estimated that, with an additional $3.2 billion a year, malaria deaths could be cut in half by 2010.