World History 2 272 - 15.3.3 Medical Miracles and Ongoing Health Challenges

Advances in computer technology were not the only technological success stories of the post–World War II world. In 1947, scientists perfected an artificial kidney, and just five years later, the first successful kidney transplant was performed. In the 1950s, antipsychotic drugs were developed and used to treat neurological disorders that once consigned patients to a lifetime of difficult treatment in a psychiatric hospital. In the 1950s, geneticists discovered the double-helix structure of DNA, information that was crucial for later advancements such as the ability to use DNA to diagnose and treat genetic diseases. In 1962, a surgical team successfully reattached a severed limb for the first time, and in 1967, the first human heart transplant took place. Over the next decade and a half, medical advances made it possible to conduct telemedicine, view and monitor internal organs without performing surgery, and monitor the heartbeat of a fetus during pregnancy.

Medical science also made enormous gains in eradicating diseases that had been common for centuries. For example, polio had caused paralysis and even death since the late nineteenth century, but in 1950, the first successful polio vaccine, developed by the Polish-born virologist Hilary Koprowski, was demonstrated as effective in children. This was an orally ingested live vaccine, a weakened form of the virus designed to help the immune system develop antibodies. In the meantime, researcher Jonas Salk at the University of Pittsburgh was developing an injectable dead-virus vaccine (Figure 15.20). This vaccine rendered the virus inactive but still triggered the body to produce antibodies. In 1955, Salk’s vaccine was licensed for use in the United States, and mass distribution began there. Other vaccines were developed in the United States and other countries over the next several years. Their use has nearly eradicated polio cases, which once numbered in the hundreds of thousands. When polio was detected in an adult in New York in July 2022, it was the first case in the United States since 2013.

A black and white photo of a serious looking man is shown. He has dark hair, a large, balding forehead, and wears a suit, white collared shirt, tie and glasses. He is standing in front of the tail of a SAS airplane. Other small airplanes can be seen in the far background.
Figure 15.20 After the polio vaccine he developed proved successful, Dr. Jonas Salk chose not to patent it to ensure it would be used freely around the world. (credit: “Dr Jonas Edward Salk, creator of Salk polio vaccine, at Copenhagen Airport” by SAS Scandinavian Airlines/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

The eradication of smallpox is another important success story. Centuries ago, smallpox devastated communities around the world, especially Native American groups, which had no immunity to the disease when Europeans brought it to their shores. Early vaccines based on the cowpox virus were deployed in the United States and Europe in the eighteenth century with great effect. In the twentieth century, advancements made the vaccine safer and easier to administer. However, by the 1950s, much of the world remained unvaccinated and susceptible. Beginning in 1959, the World Health Organization (WHO) began working to eradicate smallpox through mass vaccination, redoubling efforts in 1967 through its Intensified Eradication Program. During the 1970s, smallpox was eradicated in South America, Asia, and Africa. In 1980, the WHO declared it had been eliminated globally.

The WHO’s smallpox program is considered the most effective disease-eradication initiative in history, but it was an aggressive campaign not easily replicated. And without a vaccine, the problems of controlling transmissible diseases can be immense. A novel disease was first reported among Los Angeles’s gay community in 1981, and by 1982 it had become known as AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). Researchers realized it was commonly transmitted through sexual intercourse but could also be passed by shared needles and blood transfusions. At that time, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control explained that AIDS was not transmitted through casual contact, but the information did little to calm rising concerns about this still largely mysterious and deadly disease. By 1987, more than 60,000 people in the world had died of AIDS. In the United States, the government was slow to fund research to develop treatments or to find a cure. That year, activists at the Lesbian and Gay Community Services Center in New York City, concerned with the toll that AIDS was taking on the gay community and the government’s seeming lack of concern regarding a disease that the media depicted as affecting primarily gay men, an already stigmatized group, formed the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP). ACT UP engaged in nonviolent protest to bring attention to their cause and worked to correct misinformation regarding the disease and those who were infected with it.

By the year 2000, scientists in the developed world had acquired a sophisticated understanding of AIDS and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), and treatments have emerged that make it a manageable rather than a lethal disease, at least in the developed world. But in parts of the developing world, like Sub-Saharan Africa, infection rates were still rising. One difficulty was that HIV infection and AIDS had become associated with homosexuality, which carried stigma and, in some places, even legal penalties that made those infected reluctant to seek help. Addressing transmission with the general public also meant broaching sometimes culturally sensitive topics like sexual intercourse. Those attempting to control the spread of the disease often found themselves trying to influence social and cultural practices, a complicated task fraught with pitfalls.

This does not mean there were not successes. The proliferation of condom use, circumcision, and public information campaigns, along with the declining cost of treatment, have greatly reduced the extent of the epidemic in Africa. But AIDS is still an enormous and devastating reality for Africans today. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to nearly 70 percent of the world’s HIV-positive cases. Women and children are particularly affected; Africa accounts for 92 percent of all cases of infected pregnant women and 90 percent of all infected children.

Ebola virus has also threatened the health of Africans. The first known outbreak of Ebola, a hemorrhagic fever, took place in Central Africa in 1976. Since then, there have been several other outbreaks. In 2013–2016, an outbreak in West Africa quickly spread across national borders and threatened to become a global epidemic. Approximately ten thousand people fell ill in Liberia alone, and nearly half of those infected died.

The most recent challenge to world health, the COVID-19 pandemic, demonstrates the effects of both globalization and technological developments. The coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 appeared in Wuhan, China, an industrial and commercial hub, in December 2019. Airplane and cruise ship passengers soon unwittingly spread it throughout the world; the first confirmed case in the United States appeared in January 2020. As every continent reported infections, offices, stores, and schools closed and travel bans appeared. Despite these restrictions, middle-class and wealthy people in the developed world continued almost as normal. Many worked, studied, shopped, visited friends and family, and consulted doctors online from their homes.

Low-paid workers in service industries often lost their jobs, however, as restaurants and hotels closed, and children without access to computers or stable internet connections struggled to keep up with their classes. Even the more fortunate in the developed world confronted shortages of goods from toilet paper to medicines to infant formula when global supply chains stalled as farm laborers, factory workers, dock hands, and railroad employees fell ill or workplaces closed to prevent the spread of infection. Developing countries lacked funds to support their citizens through prolonged periods of unemployment. Although vaccines were developed in several countries, they were available primarily to people in wealthier nations. As of March 2022, only 1 percent of all vaccine doses administered worldwide had been given to people in low-income countries.

Beyond the Book

Public Art and Modern Pandemics

Dangerous diseases like HIV/AIDS can energize more people than doctors working in laboratories and global leaders publishing reports. During the early years of the HIV/AIDS crisis, grassroots organizers from around the world strove to focus attention on the problem. Their actions were necessary because governments often did little to prevent the spread of the disease or provide treatment for those infected. The AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP) became known for staging loud protests in public and sometimes private places to raise awareness about the disease. In the United States, the publicity generated through groups like ACT UP forced the government to pay greater attention and to budget more money to the search for a cure. Some artists responded to this movement with murals in well-known locations like the Berlin Wall (Figure 15.21).

A picture of three sections of a concrete wall is shown. A mural of an open mouth is drawn on the larger middle section. It has red lips, a red painted inside, and teeth, white on top and red at the bottom. The words “Act Up!” are painted inside the mouth, “act” in white and “up!” in tan. The side sections of the well have dark scribblings on them.
Figure 15.21 Artists often used the western face of the Berlin Wall to create provocative murals. This one, painted in the 1980s, featured the name of the HIV/AIDS awareness group ACT UP. (The Berlin Wall came down in 1989.) (credit: “Act Up! From the West side of the Berlin Wall” by Rory Finneren/Flickr, CC BY 2.0)

While some murals about diseases were a call to action, especially about HIV/AIDS, others have aimed to educate the public. A mural painted on a wall in Kenya for World Malaria Day 2014 showed viewers the proper use of bed nets to help lower the rate of infection (Figure 15.22).

A mural is on a wall is shown. A large oval is shown in the middle with a wooden double bed. In the bed there is a woman in a green nightgown and black hair and a small child with darker hair under a pink blanket and on white pillows. There is a blue, tall net draped around the bed and mosquitos are seen flying all around the net. On the floor to the right of the bed is a man with short dark hair in blue pants laying on a pink mat with shoes next to his mat. The background of the oval is green at the bottom and turns to blue at the top. At the top of the blue net there is a white oval with blue trim with a drawing of a long, dark coiled bug with a tail at the end labelled “larva.” There is a red arrow pointing to the right. The word “Cycle” is written to the right of the oval with a red arrow pointing to another white circle with blue trim on the right side of the oval on the mural. It shows a dark coiled bug with a large black and white head with an eye and is labelled “Pupa.” A red arrow is pointing to the bottom of the mural oval. The word “Malaria!” is written in black and red around the blue trimmed circle. At the bottom of the mural a blue trimmed white circle shows a mosquito on an orange and white background with the word “Adult” written inside. Between the bottom blue trimmed circle and the one on the right side of the oval are the words “kila usiku, kila msimu.” written along the oval in black. On the left side of the oval there is a blue trimmed white circle with 23 black dots and the word “Eggs” written in red above the dots and a red arrow pointing to the top of the oval. The words “Lala ndani ya neti iliyotibiwa,” are written along the oval from the circle with the eggs down to the mosquito circle. Above the “eggs” circle is the word “Zuia…” in black and red and then the word “-Malaria-“ running along the oval toward the top “larva” circle. Along the top of the oval there are four pictures of a hollow “x.”
Figure 15.22 This 2014 mural in Kenya illustrates how to avoid malaria infection with mosquito nets. The caption reads, “Sleep in a treated net, every night, every season.” (credit: “Final mural at Nangina Primary School, Busia County” by U.S. President’s Malaria Initiative/Flickr, Public Domain)

During the COVID-19 pandemic, artists also went to the streets. Some of the murals they painted demanded action or celebrated health workers. Others called for awareness about the rising number of elderly people dying of the disease (Figure 15.23).

A large wall mural is shown behind some short bushes with trees in the background on both sides. The top and bottom of the mural has wavy lines and the concrete is shown above and below it. At the bottom left, a small black tree is shown with the words “Rick Riojas Art and Soul Agency” in white above. Next to the tree the shadow of the back of an elderly man walking with a cane is shown with him holding hands with a small girl in a dress. Above them is a large gray wrinkled hand with a small smooth, gray hand grasping three of its fingers. The words “Familia ist alles” are written in cursive in black, orange, gray and white to the right of the gray hands. Below the words a row of large many-storied buildings are shown fading into the background. Above the words a white and gray dove flies with an olive branch in its mouth. At the left of the mural a girl is in front of a window with long dark hair, a white and gray shimmery bow in her hair wearing a short-sleeved shirt and looking sad. A black heart outline is shown in the bottom right corner on the wall and the words “#Daham Bleiwe!” are written along the bottom of the mural in orange.
Figure 15.23 In this German mural about the COVID-19 pandemic, the artist shows how the highly communicable disease separated generations while also highlights the vulnerability of the elderly. The caption reads, “Family is everything.” (credit: “Mural Familie ist alles by Rick Riojas 2020” by Hubert Berberich/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)
  • What makes art a powerful medium for conveying messages about awareness? What aspects of these murals seem especially powerful to you?
  • Do you recall seeing artwork from the COVID-19 pandemic or any other disease outbreak? What stood out in it?
  • What other art forms might an artist use to communicate political or social messages? How are these methods effective?
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The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax