Now that humanity has beaten back and nearly eliminated the once-widespread threat of polio, Bill Gates wants to finish it off for good. To some observers, though, it’s just not worth the money.
The multi-billionaire recently issued his annual letter (pdf) through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, outlining its goals. Gates has been a big donor to world health programs and fighting polio in particular, and his letter calls for eradicating polio once and for all.
There would be many benefits to eradicating the disease entirely, Gates argues — not just medical and financial, but moral. “Success will energize the field of global health by showing that investments in health lead to amazing victories,” he wrote. “The eradication effort illustrates so well how a major advance in the human condition requires resolve and courageous leadership. To win these big important fights, partnerships, money, science, politics and delivery in developing countries have to come together on a global scale.” [Los Angeles Times]
Medical science, supported by billions of philanthropic dollars, has already cut down the specter of polio around the world to a shadow of what it once was. The World Health Organization estimates that there were 1,500 cases of polio around the globe in 2010, down from 350,000 in 1988. To wipe out the last remnants of wild poliovirus, Gates proposes vaccinating youths under five in countries like Afghanistan and India where pockets of polio remain.
In an effort to make polio the second infectious disease wiped off the face of the planet, a group of charities and governments has pledged $630 million over five years to bolster vaccination efforts. The new cash infusion is spearheaded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which committed $255 million, with Rotary International and the governments of Germany and the United Kingdom promising the rest of the money.
Public health officials point hopefully to the example of smallpox, which was eradicated in 1980 after an unprecedented global campaign, but the recent statistics on polio show how tricky and expensive the endgame can be to eliminate a disease…. The polio vaccine was first created in the 1950s and the disease was quickly killed off in the U.S. and many parts of the world. Strong gains against polio continued through the 1990s but an uptick last year in the number of reported cases has health officials and donors concerned that it could re-infect parts of the world [The Wall Street Journal].