Bill's billion-dollar polio pledge: Gates funds final push on eradication

Telegraph 2 weeks ago

Philanthropist Bill Gates has urged countries to keep fighting polio as he pledged more than $1 billion to chase down the last few cases of the fatal childhood disease. 

Mr Gates’ donation makes up half of $2.6billion promised by international donors and affected countries at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum in Abu Dhabi, which is dedicated to fighting the world’s most intractable killers.

Other funders to make significant pledges were the UK, which promised £400m ($514m).

The billion-dollar funding package will go towards bolstering vaccination efforts and ramping up surveillance of the disease which is now endemic in just two countries: Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Mr Gates said it was vital to continue fighting the disease despite the fact large swathes of the world have not seen any cases for many years.

“Even a single child paralysed by polio is one too many. And we know that if we stopped eradication efforts now, there could be a resurgence of up to 200,000 cases annually by 2029,” he said. 

He added: “I don’t have a crystal ball on this but we think there’s a good chance we will get [polio] soon. But already we have to admit it’s taken longer than expected. 

The world has made enormous progress in wiping out polio in the last 30 years: the number of cases has plummeted from more than 100,000 cases a year in the 1990s to just 33 last year.

And in the summer Nigeria announced that it had not seen any cases of wild polio since 2016, meaning that the whole of Africa could be declared free of the disease next year.  

However, there are significant challenges to declaring the end of polio once and for all. Pakistan in particular has struggled to contain the disease and there have been more than 100 cases in the country so far this year.

Mr Gates said the last year had been tough: “In some of the areas in Pakistan, including on the border with Afghanistan, the insecurity has been tough.”

This insecurity have led to attacks on health workers. Other challenges in the country include parents being reluctant to have their children vaccinated. 

Earlier this year it emerged that parents were duping the health authorities in Pakistan, claiming their children had been vaccinated when they had not. 

Another problem facing the campaign has been the emergence of outbreaks of the disease linked to the vaccine – this occurs in areas where the numbers of children vaccinated are low. However, a new vaccine should be launched next year which will go some way to mitigating this, said Mr Gates. 

Experts insist that to see the disease truly eradicated from the world vaccination efforts and disease surveillance will need to continue for some years, even after the last case of polio has been detected. 

Dr Robert Redfield, director of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said the world had to stay the course.

“We have to eradicate not just human disease but we also have to eradicate polio from the environment. That’s why this round of funding is very important,” he said.

Once there are no more clinical cases experts will have to increase testing of sewage samples to check for cases in the environment. 

“This will take a period of about three to five years and then there will be some debate about when one begins to withdraw the vaccine,” he said. 

Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, said there were “few greater gifts we can give new generations than to eradicate disease”.

“We need to continue the political commitment and funding to finish the job. The infrastructure we have built must not die with polio,” he said.

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