Annie Sparrow in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:
Business and politics have always influenced international efforts to solve public health problems. Unfortunately that remains as true in the era of Ebola, Zika, and bioweapons as it did in the 19th century, when cholera—a disease that spreads more quickly and kills faster than any other pathogen—began its deadly global march. Beginning in 1817, cholera spread relentlessly from the Ganges Delta across Asia, reaching Europe in 1830 and North America in 1832, taking millions of lives along the way. It ultimately precipitated the first of 14 International Sanitary Conferences in 1851. At the time, the typical response to cholera was to quarantine ships traveling from affected areas, but this practice, which slowed commerce, was expensive and unpopular. The World Health Organization (WHO), whose origins lie in those early cholera pandemics, says they “were catalysts for intensive infectious disease diplomacy and multilateral cooperation in public health.” But in fact, the first six International Sanitary Conferences were entirely unproductive due to conflicting interests: government fears about losing profits from trans-Atlantic trade took priority over the need to reduce the international death toll. Consensus was achieved only at the seventh conference in 1892, after the opening of the Suez Canal for use by all countries made standardized quarantine regulations necessary. The participating states then unanimously approved and ratified the first of four International Sanitary Conventions, the forerunner of today’s International Health Regulations, which commit all governments to work toward stopping the spread of infectious disease and other global health threats.