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12 health moments you might have missed in 2020

December 16, 2020 by Anna Volbrecht

The COVID-19 pandemic was undoubtedly the public health story of the year—but it wasn’t the only one.

A nurse at a clinic in Nairobi, Kenya uses a wall chart to record their immunization statistics. Photo: PATH/Breese McIlvaine

A nurse at a clinic in Nairobi, Kenya records immunization statistics on a wall chart. Photo: PATH/Breese McIlvaine

The COVID-19 pandemic cast a long shadow over 2020. It claimed lives, disrupted livelihoods, and left little attention for anything else—including many public health milestones worth celebrating. These achievements—big and small—continue to shape the future of public health. Here are a few you might have missed.

January: Starting a new Decade of Action

January was the first month in the Decade of Action to accelerate progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Looking ahead at the challenges facing public health, PATH and other global health organizations were preparing for thoughtful conversations on making these goals a reality. While COVID-19 changed the conversation, the SDGs were never far from our minds (and still aren't).

January 6 was also the first day for PATH’s new CEO Nikolaj Gilbert—beginning a new era of leadership at PATH.

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In Nairobi, PATH’s Kenya Country Director Ben Aliwa takes Nikolaj on a tour of Pumwani Maternity Hospital—home of the first and only human milk bank in East Africa. Photo: PATH.

February: The Ebola vaccine becomes a reality

In February, four countries (Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, and Zambia) licensed Ervebo—a vaccine against Ebola that's been critical to containing recent outbreaks of the disease. The vaccine was used under “compassionate use” protocols before receiving prequalification from the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2019. In-country licensing will make it easier than ever for governments to access and distribute the vaccine when new outbreaks are detected.

March: New TB guidelines aim to save millions

On World Tuberculosis Day, WHO published new guidelines for the prevention and treatment of tuberculosis (TB), and encouraged greater investment in TB research and innovation—which could also unlock new ways to treat or prevent other lung diseases.

More from PATH: In Ukraine, Olga Pavlova helps transform TB treatment

April: WHO recognizes the heroes of health

This year was WHO’s International Year of the Nurse and the Midwife—which has become particularly poignant as health workers continue to sacrifice their own safety for the health of their patients. During April’s World Health Worker Week, WHO released the first-ever State of the World’s Nursing report. This publication recognizes the work of the 28 million nurses worldwide and identifies priority areas for addressing the ongoing global shortfall.

Side note: 2021 has been declared the International Year of Health and Care Workers, so we are just getting started celebrating nurses, midwives, doctors, community health workers, and all those who make public health possible.

More from PATH: Meet the health workers who will co-create solutions for vaccine delivery

We are just getting started celebrating nurses, midwives, doctors, community health workers, and all those who make public health possible.

May: Forty years without smallpox

In 1980, WHO declared the world free of smallpox—the first and only time a human disease has been completely eradicated. This accomplishment took more than a decade of global cooperation. Forty years later, those lessons learned continue to guide eradication efforts for polio, Guinea worm disease, malaria, and many other infectious diseases.

June: The second-largest Ebola outbreak ends

In June, there was good news and bad news in the ongoing effort to contain Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The good news: the outbreak in DRC’s Kivu province was officially declared over—ending the largest outbreak the country had ever seen (and second only to the 2014 West Africa Ebola outbreak).

The bad news: a new outbreak in DRC’s northwest was detected. But with quick action, this outbreak was declared over on November 18, 2020.

June was also the month when PATH released its first public statement on racism. At the uncovering of racist disparities in COVID-19’s impact, and amid global protests against racism, many health organizations drew the direct link between racism and health inequity. This was an essential step forward in the decolonization of global health—and in the pursuit of health equity.

July: Expanding access to medical devices

The Ellavi Uterine Balloon Tamponade. This simple device could save hundreds of thousands of lives, but developing it and bringing it to market has been anything but simple. Photo: Sinapi Biomedical.

The Ellavi Uterine Balloon Tamponade. This simple device could save the lives of hundreds of thousands of women and adolescent girls, but developing it and bringing it to market has been anything but simple. Photo: Sinapi Biomedical.

In July, PATH announced regulatory approvals for several PATH-supported health technologies. Sinapi Biomedical's Ellavi uterine balloon tamponade, which helps manage postpartum hemorrhage, was approved in Ghana and Kenya. Chlorxy-G Gel—used to prevent umbilical cord infections—was prequalified by the West African Health Organization. These approvals make it easier to deliver lifesaving products to the people who need them.

More from PATH: The UBT: A simple device to save mothers’ lives

August: Africa is free of wild polio

On August 25, Africa was certified wild polio free after four years without a case of wild poliovirus transmission. Now, more 90 percent of the world’s population live in regions without wild polio, and only two countries remain—Pakistan and Afghanistan—to reach global eradication.

More from PATH: What does it take to eradicate a deadly disease?

September: UN marks 75 years of championing health and well-being for all

The 2020 United Nations General Assembly was, in part, supposed to celebrate 75 years of global cooperation. While anniversary celebrations were mostly virtual this year, it was an incredible opportunity to acknowledge the contributions of the United Nations. From early guidance on the use of antibiotics to smallpox eradication to today’s Sustainable Development Goals, the UN continues to build global cooperation that improves health and well-being for everyone.

More from PATH: Together, we move forward

October: A Nobel Prize for the World Food Programme

The 2020 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the World Food Programme to “turn the eyes of the world towards the millions of people who suffer from or face the threat of hunger.” This is a timely reminder that food insecurity has critical implications for individuals’ health and well-being—and long-term consequences for world peace.

More from PATH: A brave new world for safe and reliable foods

November: Recommitting to the Decade of Action

In November, the 73rd World Health Assembly reconvened for a second session, during which governments around the world made new commitments to public health. The assembly endorsed a range of resolutions that will define progress in health for the next ten years:

Also in November, WHO released its World Malaria Report, celebrating two decades of progress and reinforcing how the global community must press onward to elimination. Infectious disease experts from across the global also convened (virtually) for the annual meeting of the American Society of Tropical Medicine & Hygiene, sharing the latest research and insights on how to fight disease and build stronger, more resilient health systems.

Another exciting development in November: WHO listed a novel oral polio vaccine for emergency use, which will provide a new tool in addressing vaccine-derived polio in Africa. This is the first time a vaccine has been granted an emergency use listing, paving the way for similar authorizations for COVID-19 vaccines and beyond.

More from PATH: Meet the new vaccine that could hasten the end of polio

December: Mobilizing for vaccines

OK—our December item is COVID-19 related. The world is seeing the results of an unparalleled effort to identify an unknown virus, develop a vaccine, and get that vaccine into communities. In less than a year.

More from PATH: When a COVID-19 vaccine is ready, will the world be?

While there is still a long road ahead to ensure COVID-19 vaccines are distributed quickly and equitably, this accomplishment is something all humanity should celebrate. And after this long and tumultuous year, we should find reasons to celebrate. There are many—and we hope this list has given you a few more.

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