Health and Healthcare Systems

9 good news stories from 2020

2020 environment gender equality science technology

2020 has seen big gender equality gains. Image: REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

Victoria Masterson
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Pandemic Preparedness and Response

  • Disease breakthroughs in 2020 included new potential cancer treatments and falling hepatitis B cases in children under five.
  • Technological advances brought us a world-first artificial eye and new NASA intelligence of water on the moon.
  • The United Nations, World Food Programme, World Economic Forum and other agencies continue to tackle global challenges including hunger, climate change and gender equality.

It’s been an incredibly tough year as the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on lives and livelihoods across the globe.

But there have been some bright spots amid the gloom.

Have you read?

As we reflect on 2020, here are nine of the good news stories that might have slipped your attention in the past 12 months.

1. Cancer breakthroughs

In July, scientists in Australia reported preclinical laboratory studies of a new cancer vaccine had shown promising signs.

“We are hoping this vaccine could be used to treat blood cancers… plus solid malignancies including breast, lung, renal, ovarian, and pancreatic cancers, and glioblastoma,” said Lead Researcher Associate Professor Kristen Radford.

The vaccine has been developed by researchers based at Australia’s Translational Research Institute, in collaboration with The University of Queensland. The work has been funded by grants from the United Kingdom cancer research charity, Worldwide Cancer Research, and Mater Foundation, a community-based fundraising organization.

In September, the virtual 2020 meeting of the European Society for Medical Oncology heard about a number of other developments, including a step forward in treatment for patients with newly diagnosed advanced ovarian cancer; a research breakthrough for high risk breast cancer patients and a successful prostate cancer trial using an existing drug for breast and ovarian cancer.

a group photo of a team of researchers
Researchers in Australia have developed a new cancer vaccine. Image: Translational Research Institute

2. Net-zero pledges climb

In September, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) announced that net-zero commitments had roughly doubled in less than a year.

“Cities and regions with a carbon footprint greater than the emissions of the US, and companies with a combined revenue of over $11.4 trillion (equivalent to more than half of the US GDP), are now pursuing net-zero emissions by the end of the century,” UNFCCC said.

Facebook, Ford and New South Wales – Australia’s most populous state – are among those who have joined the UN Race to Zero campaign, which aims to grow net-zero commitments ahead of the COP26 UN Climate Change Conference in Scotland in 2021.

3. Hepatitis B falls in under-fives

On World Hepatitis Day in July, the World Health Organization (WHO) reported that cases of hepatitis B in children under age five had dropped below 1% in 2019.

The viral infection of the liver, that can cause liver cancer, claims around 900,000 lives a year. More than 250 million people live with chronic hepatitis B infection.

“No infant should grow up only to die of hepatitis B because they were not vaccinated ─ today’s milestone means that we have dramatically reduced the number of cases of liver damage and liver cancer in future generations," said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General.

The news means a key target set out in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals has been met.

4. Helping hunger

During 2019, the programme helped close to 100 million people in 88 countries who are victims of acute food insecurity and hunger.

The prize recognized the World Food Programme’s efforts to combat hunger, improve conditions for peace in conflict-affected areas and help prevent the use of hunger as a weapon of war and conflict.

“In the face of the pandemic, the World Food Programme has demonstrated an impressive ability to intensify its efforts,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.

a staffer for the world food programme is shown assisting a woman
World Food Programme staff attend to a participant in a Food and Cash assistance scheme in Nigeria. Image: WFP/Damilola Onafuwa

5. World first 3D eye

The unveiling in June of the world's first spherical artificial eye with a 3D retina raised the possibility of bringing vision to humanoid robots and new hope to patients with visual impairment.

An international team led by scientists at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) developed the eye and say its capabilities are better than existing bionic eyes and in some cases, even exceed those of the human eye.

“The key feature allowing such breakthroughs is a 3D artificial retina – made of an array of nanowire light sensors which mimic the photoreceptors in human retinas,” the scientists explained.

6. Gender equality gains

No country has yet achieved gender equality but there are clear pockets of progress

The United Nations’ World’s Women 2020 report, published in October, found women’s representation in parliament has more than doubled globally, reaching 25% of parliamentary seats in 2020.

There are now 20 countries with a woman head of state or government, up from 12 in 1995.

Health outcomes for women have also improved in some key areas, particularly child birth.

“The risk of maternal death has been reduced globally by 38% between 2000 and 2017, with the greatest reduction achieved in Southern Asia (reduction of 59%),” the UN says.

a chart showing countries with female head of state by region
There are 20 heads of state or government who are women, up from 12 in 1995. Image: The World’s Women 2020: Trends and Statistics

7. Moon water discovery

Water on the moon is more widespread than previously thought and could help sustain future missions as drinking water or fuel, NASA announced in October.

“Whether the water SOFIA found is easily accessible for use as a resource remains to be determined,” NASA says.

“Under NASA’s Artemis program, the agency is eager to learn all it can about the presence of water on the Moon in advance of sending the first woman and next man to the lunar surface in 2024 and establishing a sustainable human presence there by the end of the decade.”

8. Conservation success

Up to 48 bird and mammal species have been saved from extinction by international conservation efforts since 1993, it was announced in September.

They include the Asian crested Ibis, yellow-eared parrot, Hawaiian crow, spoon-billed sandpiper, red wolf, black-footed ferret and pygmy hog.

Probability that extinction of bird species would have occurred in the absence of conservation action during (a) 1993–2020
WIthout conservation, extinction of bird species would have been 3.1 - 4.2 times higher. Image: Conservation Letters

Researchers at Newcastle University and conservation partnership BirdLife International analyzed the impact of conservation activity since the UN Convention on Biological Diversity came into force in 1993.

Fifteen bird and mammal species have become extinct or suspected extinct since then – but the extinction rate could have been three to four times higher without conservation action, the researchers said.

9. Plastic action

Ghana, Indonesia and Vietnam are among the nations accelerating action on plastic waste as part of a global partnership tackling plastic pollution.

Indonesia has pledged to reduce marine plastic debris by 70% by 2025. Ghana has committed to achieving a 100% circular economy for plastics and Vietnam has committed to a 75% cut in marine plastics by 2030.

The countries are partners in the World Economic Forum’s Global Plastic Action Partnership, which aims to eradicate plastic pollution.

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