Gates Foundation gives $255 million more in fight to KO polio
Bill Gates pledges $255 million and vows to keep up the fight until polio is vanquished
Seattle Times science reporter
Saying the time is right for a final push to eradicate polio, Bill Gates and his foundation today chipped in another $255 million to accelerate the fight.
"Right now, we have the opportunity to eradicate a disease for only the second time in the history of the world, after smallpox," Gates told a San Diego meeting of Rotary International.
The money will go to the service organization, which has pledged to raise $100 million in matching funds over the next three years. Rotary has helped spearhead fundraising and polio-vaccination drives since 1988, when the global polio eradication initiative was launched by the World Health Organization (WHO).
"This shared commitment of Rotary and the Gates Foundation should encourage governments and nongovernmental organizations to ensure that resources and the will of the world are available to end polio once and for all," said Rotary Foundation Chair Jonathan Majiyagbe.
The new infusion of cash from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, along with $280 million from Germany and the United Kingdom, comes at a time when polio cases are on the rise and spending for the effort is threatened by the global economic meltdown.
Some experts question whether it will ever be possible to completely wipe out the sewage-borne virus in such countries as Nigeria and India, even though it was banished from the developed world decades ago.
But Gates said it's unthinkable to give up.
"We don't let children die because it is fatiguing to save them," he said.
Gates said he will visit Nigeria next month. The African nation has been the site of several recent outbreaks, including last year. In 2003, rumors spread that polio vaccination was a Western plot to sterilize Muslim girls.
"I'm going to northern Nigeria where the polio is worst, to see it for myself," Gates said.
The new donation brings total polio funding by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to $655 million, including a $100 million grant to Rotary last year. In addition to boosting vaccination rates, Gates' money is being used to develop cheaper and more-effective vaccines.
"Innovation will knock out polio in those few remaining, very stubborn pockets," Gates said.
WHO estimates the international polio eradication program is still $340 million short of the amount needed over the next two years.
More than $6 billion has been invested in polio eradication over the past 20 years. During that time, the number of cases has been slashed 99 percent from 350,000 a year and the disease has been largely chased from more than 100 countries. Today it remains endemic in only four nations: Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India.
But polio has stubbornly refused to budge from those areas, and outbreaks have leapt across borders and followed travel routes to other countries.
At least two target dates for wiping out the virus have come and gone, and even many modest milestones remain unmet. As spending has soared, the number of children paralyzed by the virus rose from 1,315 in 2007 to more than 1,600 last year. The disease also spread into seven additional countries.
With reports from 2008 still trickling in, experts say the tally could reach 2,000. Since only about one case in 200 results in paralysis, that means the actual number of infected people — each of whom can spread the disease — could approach 400,000.
"They are spending a lot more money now, and number of cases is not falling," said Scott Barrett, a professor of international policy economy at Johns Hopkins University, who puts the odds of success at 50 percent or less. "Eradication has always been a high-stakes gamble."
Gates shied away from setting target dates in his speech, and his foundation quickly pulled from its web site a call for eradication by 2013.
"We do not know when," he said, "but we do know that we will eradicate polio."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or email@example.com
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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