While the rest of the world was watching US president Barak Obama making promise to bring change not just to America but the world, people at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle were busy giving final touches to a joint $635 million grant to fight polio, a disease that has been eradicated in the Americas and Europe but continues to cripples and kills children in Asia and Africa.
The joint grant is a combination of $255 million from the Gates Foundation, which Rotary will match with $100 million over the next three years. The UK will give $150 million and Germany another $130 million over five years.
A major chunk of this grant will come to India, which is one of the four countries in the world – the others are Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan – where the poliovirus continues to thrive and get “exported” to infect children in other countries.
Ironically, the day his country had voted for change and elected Obama as President, Gates Foundation co-chair Bill Gates was on a polio mission to India. He spent the day visiting a nine-month-old afflicted with polio in Delhi’s sprawling slum Seemapuri.
“It’s a coincidence. No, it’s good karma. We have reason to be very optimistic about polio eradication as the world has reduced polio cases by 99 per cent over the past two decades, from more than 350,000 cases in 1988 to an estimated 1,600 in 2008,” Dr Linda Venczel, Senior Program Officer, Vaccine Preventable Diseases, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, speaking to HT from Seattle.
Serious challenges exist, such as vaccine ineffectiveness in India, low vaccination coverage rates in Nigeria, and access problems due to conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan. India, with 551 cases in 2008, accounted for more than a third of the 1,625 cases worldwide in 2008. Nigeria had 788 and Pakistan, 118.
“The complete elimination of the polio virus is difficult and will continue to be difficult for a number of years,” said Gates Foundation co-chair Bill Gates.
The Foundation is now wary of setting s deadline for eradication. “The last deadline was 2000 and since then we have realized it is a tough job to do. Even after the last case is over, we have to maintain high case vigilance and ensure the disease does get eradicated,” said Dr Venczel.
“India has the best programme there is… the biggest challenge now is staying the course and having the determination to keep vaccination coverage high during the last phase,” she added.