In the war on polio, target changes but not commitment

In the war on polio, Bill Gates has changed the target but not his resolve to see the crippling disease wiped from the face of the earth.

Through organizations such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Rotary International,  health workers had reduced the incidence of polio to four countries. But last summer polio spread across Africa, despite an ambitious campaign to eradicate the disease.

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Gates was faced with the question most health-care workers continue to debate, according to an article in The Wall Street Journal: do you focus on eradicating the disease or improving the overall health-care system? For Gates and Rotary, the answer is “both.”

It is a challenge that Rotary has met since it launched its PolioPlus initiative in 1985.

As of March 31, Rotarians have raised about $117.5 million for Rotary’s US$200 Million Challenge. These contributions will help Rotary match $355 million in challenge grants received from the Gates foundation. The resulting $555 million will directly support immunization campaigns in developing countries, where polio continues to infect and paralyze children, robbing them of their futures and compounding the hardships faced by their families.

In early March, Rotary kicked off a program to immunize more than 85 million children under age five against polio in 19 countries across West and Central Africa. With more than 400,000 volunteers and health workers, the campaign is a massive example of cross-border cooperation aimed at stopping a yearlong polio epidemic. You can track these efforts on a Google map.

Thanks to the Salk and Sabin vaccines, health workers have virtually eliminated polio in the developed world. But conflict and misinformation have prevented its eradication in many developing countries, including Africa.

Despite the setback there, Gates still believes it’s possible to free the world of polio. As he told Rotarians in a video message in April, “The work you’re doing to raise funds for the program is critical, especially given the tight government budgets and increasing costs for a very aggressive polio program. Your work as advocates is also very important. We need to keep this fight high on the world’s list of priorities.”