Staying well in the 21st century is like playing a game of chess

Staying well in the 21st century is like playing a game of chess

The control of infectious diseases was considered to be one of the “10 Great Public Health Achievements.” What we didn’t take into account was the very concept of evolution: as we built better protections, our enemies eventually boosted their attacking prowess, so soon enough we found ourselves on the defensive once again.

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This article originally appeared inOne Health/One Planet, a single-issue magazine that explores how climate change and other environmental shifts are increasing vulnerabilities to infectious diseases by land and by sea. The magazine probes how scientists are making progress with leaders in other fields toward solutions that embrace diverse perspectives and the interconnectedness of all lifeforms and the planet.

On July 30, 1999, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report comparing data on the control of infectious disease from the beginning of the 20th century to the end. The data showed that deaths from infectious diseases declined markedly. In the early 1900s, pneumonia, tuberculosis and diarrheal diseases were the three leading killers, accounting for one-third of total deaths in the U.S.—with 40 percent being children under five.

Mass vaccinations, the discovery of antibiotics and overall sanitation and hygiene measures eventually eradicated smallpox, beat down polio, cured cholera, nearly rid the world of tuberculosis and extended the U.S. life expectancy by 25 years. By 1997, there was a shift in population health in the U.S. such that cancer, diabetes and heart disease were now the leading causes of death.

The control of infectious diseases is considered to be one of the “10 Great Public Health Achievements.” Yet on the brink of the 21st century, new trouble was already brewing. Hospitals were seeing periodic cases of antibiotic-resistant infections. Novel viruses, or those that previously didn’t afflict humans, began to emerge, causing outbreaks of West Nile, SARS, MERS or swine flu.

In the years that followed, tuberculosis made a comeback, at least in certain parts of the world. What we didn’t take into account was the very concept of evolution: as we built better protections, our enemies eventually boosted their attacking prowess, so soon enough we found ourselves on the defensive once again.

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Lina Zeldovich

Lina Zeldovich has written about science, medicine and technology for Popular Science, Smithsonian, National Geographic, Scientific American, Reader’s Digest, the New York Times and other major national and international publications. A Columbia J-School alumna, she has won several awards for her stories, including the ASJA Crisis Coverage Award for Covid reporting, and has been a contributing editor at Nautilus Magazine. In 2021, Zeldovich released her first book, The Other Dark Matter, published by the University of Chicago Press, about the science and business of turning waste into wealth and health. You can find her on http://linazeldovich.com/ and @linazeldovich.

This man spent over 70 years in an iron lung. What he was able to accomplish is amazing.

Paul Alexander spent more than 70 years confined to an iron lung after a polio infection left him paralyzed at age 6. Here, Alexander uses a mirror attached to the top of his iron lung to view his surroundings.

Allison Smith / The Guardian

It’s a sight we don’t normally see these days: A man lying prone in a big, metal tube with his head sticking out of one end. But it wasn’t so long ago that this sight was unfortunately much more common.

In the first half of the 20th century, tens of thousands of people each year were infected by polio—a highly contagious virus that attacks nerves in the spinal cord and brainstem. Many people survived polio, but a small percentage of people who did were left permanently paralyzed from the virus, requiring support to help them breathe. This support, known as an “iron lung,” manually pulled oxygen in and out of a person’s lungs by changing the pressure inside the machine.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.

When doctors couldn’t stop her daughter’s seizures, this mom earned a PhD and found a treatment herself.

Savannah Salazar (left) and her mother, Tracy Dixon-Salazaar, who earned a PhD in neurobiology in the quest for a treatment of her daughter's seizure disorder.

LGS Foundation

Twenty-eight years ago, Tracy Dixon-Salazaar woke to the sound of her daughter, two-year-old Savannah, in the midst of a medical emergency.

“I entered [Savannah’s room] to see her tiny little body jerking about violently in her bed,” Tracy said in an interview. “I thought she was choking.” When she and her husband frantically called 911, the paramedic told them it was likely that Savannah had had a seizure—a term neither Tracy nor her husband had ever heard before.

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Sarah Watts

Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.