Bill Gates pushing us to push polio into oblivion

Child receiving oral polio vaccine

In case you missed it, Bill Gates thinks we should eradicate polio.

Not just him. You and me, too.

Bill and Melinda Gates have given a lot of money — about $1.3 billion — in support of the global campaign to eradicate polio. But, as Gates has been saying a lot the past week, it’s going to take a truly global effort to succeed:

“If eradication fails because of a lack of generosity on the part of donor countries it would be tragic. We are so close, but we have to finish the last leg of the journey,” says Gates in his annual letter released today.

Gates has been on the global media circuit for the past week or so stumping for polio eradication. He wants the public everywhere to push their governments to provide more funds for this big global project.

Gates made the case early last week when he announced his $50 million donation (matched by an Abu Dhabi crown prince) to boost the vaccination campaign in Pakistan and Afghanistan, two of the four countries (the others being India and Nigeria) where polio is still endemic.

He also pushed polio at Davos after also announcing more Gates Foundation money, $102 million, for the cause.

Today, Gates participated in a webcast from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s historic Manhattan home, which featured a panel discussion by experts moderated by ABC’s Diane Sawyer. The TV network recently accepted funding from the Gates Foundation to do more global health “success” stories (a little problematic, but another issue).

Polio eradication is the “Gates Foundation’s top priority,”  he said during the webcast. It’s clearly a top priority, but “the” top priority tends to shift for the Seattle philanthropy — from the search for an effective AIDS vaccine to vaccines in general to India in general.

Still, there’s no question that the world is as close as it is to wiping polio off the planet because of the support, both financial and philosophically, of the Gates Foundation. We are close to the finish line in a race to finally rid the world of polio, Gates said yesterday, and we can’t afford to fail.

“We’ve been close to finish line before,” said David Oshinsky, a historian and Pulitzer-prize winning author of “Polio: An American Story.” Oshinsky, who was among those on the webcast panel Monday, warned that close is not going to be good enough.

Tonight, Bill Gates is scheduled to appear on the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, by the way. So if you missed Davos and the webcast from FDR’s house, watch Comedy Central for a dose of Gates as global health advocate.

Tomorrow, I take a look at the debate over disease eradication (which the New York Times touched on today): Is it wrong to want to get rid of a single disease?

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Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at]humanosphere.org or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.