Eradication programs

Published: November 2010

We do not include any current disease eradication campaigns among our priority programs in international aid. We have considered two major eradication campaigns:

  • Polio eradication (Global Polio Eradication Initiative)
  • Guinea worm eradication (Global Guinea Worm Eradication Program)

Below we list some of the potential concerns around eradication campaigns. Our purpose is not to argue that such campaigns are bad investments in general, but simply to note that the sort of complexity they involve makes them a poor fit for our list of "low burden-of-proof" priority programs. We feel that charities working on these sorts of programs bear a relatively high burden of proof regarding the potential concerns below.

Potential concerns around eradication campaigns

As an eradication program nears its goal, it may require significant additional funds in order to achieve the goal of eradication. Historically, only one eradication program (smallpox) has been successful.

The Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries report states:

Of the several attempts to eradicate diseases, all but one has failed. Even the exception, smallpox, barely succeeded despite the many factors favorable to eradication. Whether any eradication effort will ultimately succeed or fail cannot be known with certainty at the time it is launched. Eradication entails risk. Money spent on eradication may not ultimately pay a dividend. Health risks may also exist. If eradication fails and vaccination levels drop after the eradication goal is abandoned, susceptible persons who were previously shielded from infection may become infected at a later age, when the disease can cause greater harm. The risk also exists that, even if eradication succeeds, the disease may be reintroduced by accidental or deliberate release.

The reasons for potential failure of an eradication effort are many. A nonhuman host may not be discovered until the number of infected humans drops to a very low level (as happened with yellow fever). The tools of eradication may be vulnerable to resistance (insecticides and drugs in the case of malaria). Political problems and civil strife may prevent an eradication program from being executed in critical areas where the disease makes its last stand (a problem today for guinea worm). Termination of vaccination may leave populations vulnerable to microbe reintroduction from an unforeseen reservoir or vaccine strain reversion (a risk now facing the poliomyelitis initiative). Another potential reason for failure is the inability to raise the financial resources needed to complete programs that extend beyond expected targets. All eradication programs have experienced serious financial stringencies during the course of their execution.1

The Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries report illustrates the problem with a case study of polio eradication:

  • Background: "Poliomyelitis became the next principal target when mass vaccination campaigns, proposed by Albert Sabin (1991), proved remarkably successfully in Cuba and Brazil. In 1985, an American Health Organization coordinated campaign was launched to interrupt poliovirus transmission in the Americas by 1991, and this effort succeeded. Some believed that global eradication might be possible, although others were concerned that the far less developed infrastructure of health, transportation, and communications services in many parts of Asia and Africa would make it an unachievable task. In 1988, the WHA adopted a resolution to eradicate polio, but at that time, a longer-term strategy for ending polio vaccination was neither formulated nor agreed on by the public health and scientific community."2
  • Cost-effectiveness concerns: "The economics of polio eradication are thus not as favorable as concluded by either Bart, Foulds, and Patriarca (1996) or Khan and Ehreth (2003). Both studies assume that vaccination can cease without IPV being used as a substitute anywhere, both exclude the costs of maintaining a response capacity, and neither accounts for the real threat of reemergence. Sangrujee, Cáceres, and Cochi (2004) take account of two of these considerations, but their analysis calculates only the costs for 15 years, ignoring both the risk of reemergence and the benefits of eradication.... In conclusion, although the economics of polio eradication may have been thought to be favorable by some (Aylward and others 2003), they are far less favorable than were the economics of smallpox eradication, even assuming that polio vaccination could cease."3

    We have not done thorough cost-effectiveness analysis of this program. Because such analysis is highly time-consuming - and because the results can vary significantly depending on details of the context - we generally do not provide cost-effectiveness analysis for an intervention unless we find what we consider to be a strong associated giving opportunity.

    The quote above is from the Disease Control Priorities in Developing Countries report, which we previously used for cost-effectiveness estimates until we vetted its work in 2011, finding major errors that raised general concerns.


  • 1

    Jamison et al. 2006, Pgs 1173-1174.

  • 2

    Jamison et al. 2006, Pg 1164.

  • 3

    Jamison et al. 2006, Pg 1174.

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