Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledges $1.2 billion to eradicate polio

By Madeline Halpert

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced yesterday that it will donate $1.2 billion to help eradicate wild polio in the remaining two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan, where the virus is endemic and prevent new strains of the virus from emerging, months after New York reported its first case of vaccine-derived polio in nearly a decade.

The money will go to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a partnership that includes the Gates Foundation, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that focuses on eradicating the spread of polio.

The organization is seeking to raise $4.8 billion in total for its 2022-2026 program and will raise more funds at a summit on Oct. 18, according to the Gates Foundation.

Although significant progress has been made in the fight against polio, the disease “remains a threat,” billionaire co-founder Bill Gates said in a statement.

Melinda French Gatesco-founder of the nonprofit organization and ex-wife of Bill Gates, added that polio vaccination campaigns have “played a key role in strengthening health systems” as well as stopping the spread of the disease.

A big number

370 million. That’s the number of children GPEI hopes to vaccinate against polio each year from 2022 to 2026, the Gates Foundation said Sunday.

NEWS PIN

The ten-figure donation comes after poliovirus samples were found in both New York and London states, prompting officials to monitor cases and increase vaccination requests.

Cases are thought to be due to vaccine-derived polio: People vaccinated with live poliovirus can shed it in their feces, where it can spread through sewage, mutate, and then infect others they come into contact with.

New York declared an emergency last month after the virus was found in a fourth county besides New York City, and the state began monitoring sewage after a case of vaccine-derived polio caused paralysis in an unvaccinated 20-year-old man in Rockland.

Many of the New York counties where the virus has been found have polio vaccination rates well below the national average. In London, health officials announced a new vaccination campaign in August to help increase coverage in children under 10, after vaccine-derived poliovirus was detected in sewage in North and East London by first time in decades.

KEY BACKGROUND

Poliomyelitis is a contagious disease that is spread primarily through contact with fecal samples and occasionally by coughing and sneezing. Before the polio vaccine was developed in 1955, about 15,000 people in the US developed paralysis from the disease each year, according to the CDC. Poliovirus has been eliminated in many countries around the world as a result of mass vaccination campaigns, including the GPEI, which was launched in 1988 and is one of the largest public health initiatives in history worldwide.

However, the virus still circulates in Pakistan and Afghanistan, where political instability and protracted conflict have prevented vaccination campaigns. As of 2021, about 75% of Afghan children aged 12 to 23 months had been fully vaccinated against polio, while 83% had been vaccinated in Pakistan, according to UNICEF. The Gates Foundation has donated nearly $5 billion to the GPEI initiative in the past, while high-income country governments and other nonprofits have also contributed.

TANGENT

Bill Gates told Forbes last month that he plans to finish the foundation he co-chairs with Melinda in 25 years, explaining that “spending all the money in that time frame makes sense.” During that time, he said he hopes to “try to end infectious diseases, or all diseases that make the world unfair,” either by “eradicating them or reducing them to very low levels.”

The news came after Gates announced in July that he had donated $20 billion to the foundation. He said that he plans to keep giving until he is no longer a billionaire.

FORBES VALUATION

Gates, who made his fortune by co-founding Microsoft, is worth $99.8 billion, according to real-time estimates from Forbes, making him the fifth richest person in the world. His ex-wife, Melinda French Gates, has a fortune of US$6.1 billion.

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Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation pledges $1.2 billion to eradicate polio