By the late 1980s, though, the gauntlet was thrown down at the highest levels and, at first, progress was impressively swift. Then came India, a nation with so many remote populations and in which the birth rate outstripped the ability to inoculate. The polio workers, the heroes of Karen Bartlett’s book, soldiered on undeterred and ultimately reached their goal. It was a wonderful example and, these days, polio is only endemic in three countries around the globe: Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan. So far as polio is concerned, Bartlett writes, ‘the end game is on.’
As cheering as this is, Bartlett reminds us that the final stages of eradication are always going to be the hardest: there is cash to be found, science to be polished, and political momentum to be sustained. If absolute eradication is not achieved then ‘critics will point to the 30-year, $8.6billion campaign and claim it has spent a staggering amount of money and expended huge efforts in chasing an impossible dream.’ The stakes could not be higher. Those critics can also point to the failure of previous attempts at total eradication. Smallpox may have been defeated by 1979, but many other terrible diseases clung on. This measured and scholarly book, a deft combination of history and palatable scientific reportage, should, however, give us all hope. If you believe the Gates Foundation, malaria may be vanquished by mid-century.