11 Reasons to Be Optimistic in 2014

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Although the news often focuses on doom and gloom, there is plenty of good news around the world: we are making tremendous advances in life expectancy, disease prevention, poverty, and hunger. As we head into 2014, here are 11 reasons to be optimistic.

1. People are Living Longer

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The good news: Every single country in the world has lower mortality rates overall than it had in 1950. Although there is still much work to be done, a lot of the progress has been due to caring for babies and young children: infant mortality is down in every developing country compared to 2009. (Go look at the little trend lines showing progress in each country.) There are 7,256 fewer infant deaths every day around the world compared to the year 2000. That is huge.

This progress is largely thanks to preventing diseases like measles. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that between 2000 and 2011, the number of measles deaths decreased by a shocking 71%. As a result of this and other improvements in health, life expectancy around the world has improved dramatically in the past few decades: it was an average of 64 years in 1990, and 70 years in 2011 (the latest year for which global data is available). In some countries, the jump is far more dramatic; in Ethiopia, life expectancy was 46 years in 1990, but in 2011 had jumped to 60 years. (Afghanistan has similar numbers -- 49 up to 60.) Even developed countries are doing better; Switzerland went from an impressive 78 years up to 83 years.

The take-away: People around the world, in virtually every country, are living longer. Just as important, far fewer babies are dying.

2. More People Around the World Can Read

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The good news: Global literacy rates are rising. In 2011 (the latest year for which data is available), the global adult literacy rate was 84.1%, and the rate for youth was 89.5% (!). While this leaves an estimated 896.7 million people illiterate, the trend is strongly towards literacy, and youth aged 15 and younger are doing especially well.

UNESCO sums it up:

Between 1990 and 2011, the adult literacy rate in the Arab States rose from 55% to 77% and the youth literacy rate from 74% to 90%. Over the same period, the adult literacy rate in South and West Asia increased from 47% to 63% and the youth literacy rate from 60% to 81%. To a lesser extent, progress was also observed in all of the other regions.

The take-away: The global adult literacy rate is projected to reach 86% by 2015 and the youth literacy rate should reach 92%. Overall, literacy is improving, especially among young people. Because literate young people grow up to be literate adults, the future is full of readers.

3. We're Winning the Fight Against Malaria

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The good news: The WHO's 2013 Malaria Report has great news. Of the 103 countries that had ongoing malaria transmission in the year 2000, 59 are meeting the Millennium Development Goal of reversing the incidence of malaria. In 41 of those countries, the reported data can't be analyzed for trends, so the picture in those countries may be better or worse -- we just don't know yet.

Since the year 2000, worldwide malaria death rates fell by 45% in all age groups. In children under age five, the death rate fell by 51%. Because malaria is a major killer in sub-Saharan Africa, treating and preventing malaria is a huge part of saving people's lives (particularly children) in the region. Furthermore, in 2000, only 3% of households in sub-Saharan Africa owned an insecticide-treated mosquito net (a key tool to prevent malaria infection in the first place). Now, 54% of households have at least one net.

The take-away: Malaria deaths are going down radically. If we keep up this pace of prevention and treatment, by 2015 the rate of malaria mortality will be 56% lower than it was in 2000. Global action to fight malaria is saving 700 lives every day, right now.

4. Tuberculosis is Becoming a Thing of the Past

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The good news: Tuberculosis is a preventable disease, and we're doing better at preventing it than in the past. In 2012, 1.3 million people died as a result of TB. However, TB rates are falling in every region around the world. The rate of TB incidence has been reduced by 45% since 1990. This means that the world is on track to hit the Millennium Development Goal of cutting TB incidence in half (compared to 1990) by 2015.

The take-away: We're on track to cut TB rates in half by next year.

5. Worldwide Poverty is Down

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The good news: In 2000, 33% of the world population was living in poverty. Today, it's 21%. While that means more than 1 in 5 people live in poverty, it's still enormous progress -- and it means that the world has effectively halved its poverty rate in just 20 years.

The take-away: Since the Millennium Development Goals were announced in 2000, over 600 million people have been pulled out of extreme poverty. This represents the fastest decline in global poverty in all of human history.

6. India Will Be Polio-Free in 2014

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The good news: There have been no new cases of polio reported in India since January 13, 2011. If no new cases are reported India will be certified polio-free in early 2014.

According to UNICEF, India accounted for nearly half of the world's polio cases as recently as 2009. A massive country-wide effort to eliminate polio means that soon there will be just three countries left in which polio is endemic: Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeria.

The take-away: As recently as 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries and approximately 350,000 people were paralyzed annually. Today, that's three countries and a few hundred cases.

7. We're Vaccinating More People Than Ever

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The good news: The GAVI Alliance is bringing the rotavirus vaccine to 30 of the world's poorest countries by 2015. Rotavirus is the leading cause of severe childhood diarrhea, and an estimated 450,000 children die from rotavirus-caused diarrhea every year. The GAVI program will vaccinate 50 million children, protecting them from rotavirus. And the vaccine works well -- in Bolivia, it has saved thousands of lives.

Rotavirus is just one of many diseases that can be prevented with vaccines. The 71% decrease in measles deaths from 1990 to 2011 is attributed to vaccination. India's polio elimination effort is also based on an effective vaccine. The same is true of smallpox. Vaccines work.

The take-away: When 2015 rolls around, 50 million more children around the world will be protected from rotavirus.

8. Ethiopia is Doing Well

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The good news: Ethiopia has shown that simple, community-based initiatives work. Ethiopia's Community Based Nutrition program is drastically reducing malnutrition rates. In one community, Wolaita, malnutrition rates have dropped by 75% in three years because of this community approach.

Ethiopia is also pioneering an approach to family planning. Between 1990 and 2011, contraceptive use in the country has increased ninefold. A recent study attributed this success to a combination of political will, donor support, NGOs and public-private partnerships, and perhaps most importantly the Health Extension Program (HEP). The HEP invested in a network of 17,000 "health posts" with 38,000 workers who provide education and contraceptive support.

The take-away: Ethiopia was once the poster-child (literally) for problems of malnutrition, health, and other issues. Today, Ethiopia proves that seemingly intractable problems can be solved through hard work and community outreach.

9. We're Gaining Ground Against HIV

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The good news: HIV incidence rates have fallen by 33% overall since 2005, and the incidence among children has dropped by 52%. Access to HIV treatment has grown 40-fold since 2002. At the end of 2012, 9.7 million people in low- and middle-income countries had access to antiretroviral therapy.

Advances in HIV treatment mean it is no longer as deadly as it once was, especially in developed countries. According to a late 2013 study, "A 20-year-old HIV-positive adult on antiretroviral therapy (ART) in the U.S. or Canada may be expected to live into their early 70's, a life expectancy approaching that of the general population." Treatment is significantly reducing deaths from HIV in the developing world, too. According to UNAIDS, the number of people dying from AIDS-related causes each year has declined from a high of ~2.3 million in 2005 to ~1.6 million in 2012.

The take-away: Deaths from AIDS-related causes are going down. Access to treatment is going up. An HIV diagnosis is no longer considered a death sentence.

10. We're on Track to Halve Hunger By 2015

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The good news: One of the Millennium Development Goals is to halve world hunger from its 1990 rate. We're on track to do that. According to the UN, since 1990, "The global number of hungry people declined by 132 million...or from 18.6 percent to 12.5 percent of the world's population, and from 23.2 percent to 14.9 percent in developing countries."

The take-away: Fewer people are going hungry around the world.

11. Guinea Worm is Set to Be the First Fully Eradicated Human Disease Since Smallpox

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The good news: Guinea Worm, a water-borne disease, is down 49% since 2011. We don't have final numbers yet for 2013, but there have only been 144 cases tallied so far in 2013. Back in 1986, 3.5 million people were infected. This is an incredible drop, and means 2014 could be the year we eradicate Guinea Worm.

For more on Guinea Worm, check out this NPR story, which includes this bit of trivia:

The disease is also known as dracunculiasis, or "affliction with little dragons," because the worm feels like hot coals as it exits from the skin.

The take-away: For only the second time in human history, we are on the verge of eradicating a human disease from the face of the Earth. And this one involves slaying "little dragons."

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December 30, 2013 - 9:00am
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