Critics and fans spar on Bill Gates’ anti-polio push

Child receives polio vaccine

Huh, we still have polio?

That’s the first problem with the polio story.

This is often the public reaction whenever there are news stories about the long-running — and, lately, increasingly frustrating — effort to rid the world of this crippling disease.  As recently as 1988, polio afflicted nearly half a million kids worldwide every year and killed maybe 5-10 percent of them.

The second problem with the polio story could be what I will call, by inventing a new German word, Glitz-Schadenfreude — the enjoyment of witnessing a rich or famous person getting taken down a notch.

Bill Gates, as we have been reminded over and over the past week, has made polio eradication one of his causes célèbres (sorry, switching to French). It’s a natural psychological tendency — this Glitz-Schadenfreude — for some of us to enjoy seeing Gates defend himself against those who would criticize his judgment on this, if not his role as humanitarian-in-chief.

Polio is today down to maybe a few thousand cases in a handful of mostly poor countries, thanks to a global vaccination campaign and in some cases improved sanitation.

Polio cases worldwide

The polio virus could (and does, on occasion) come back with a vengeance. We don’t worry about it here in the U.S. because we’re a wealthy country.

We would not stand for anyone telling us that, on balance, we need to accept a few more crippled and dead kids rather than waste money fighting a disease that so rarely plagues us anymore.

That’s what the critics of Bill Gates’ big push to eradicate polio sometimes sound like they’re saying. They’re not really, but it sounds like that.

So, we have these two basic problems going in to trying to tell the story of the global campaign to end polio, ignorance and Glitz-Schadenfreude.

And, perhaps as a result, end up with two basic media narratives: The cheerleaders and the cynics.

Most of us (I include myself) in the media tend to be cheerleaders for this cause:

Bloomberg: Gates, U.K. Boost Polio Spending to Speed End of Crippling Virus

NPR: Gates Calls for More Money to Stamp Out Polio

Me: Gates Pushing Us to Push Polio Into Oblivion

Then, there were the narratives of the cynics:

Financial Times: Gates Polio Goals Questioned

The Chronicle of Philanthropy: Gates-led Polio Push Attracts Criticism

LA Times: Is Bill Gates Fight Against Polio Quixotic or Impractical?

And then there are those who can’t seem to make up their mind whether or not they think Bill Gates’ anti-polio push is good or bad, wise or unwise:

Dr. Donald Henderson led the successful smallpox eradication campaign (so far, the only disease to be eradicated) for the World Health Organization. Henderson has long said polio eradication is not possible and we should opt for the less-costly and consuming goal of simply trying to keep it under control. He’s cited in the cynical narratives above. Here’s what the Financial Times’ wrote:

The “father” of smallpox eradication has cast doubt on whether the same can be achieved for polio, even as Bill Gates steps up a campaign with other donors to raise billions of dollars to tackle the disease…. He told the Financial Times that polio eradication had “become more of a ‘movement’ than a public health initiative capable of being examined by objective judgment”. He called instead for a cheaper but sus­tained control program­me with annual immunisations.
Yet in an interview this week with The Seattle Times, Henderson is quoted saying just the opposite:

Henderson, a resident scholar at the University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Biosecurity, said he changed his mind six months ago…. Henderson says polio eradication has a fighting chance and it’s worth a try. “I would say there certainly is a chance this can be achieved.”

Even the New York Times seemed confused about the message it was trying to send on the headline of Don McNeil’s article on Gates and the polio campaign.

When the NYTimes story first came out online, the headline read “Critics Say Gates Anti-Polio Push is Misdirected.” This was was later changed, without alteration to McNeil’s story insofar as I can tell, to the more neutral (if not cheerleading) “Gates Calls for Final Push to Eradicate Polio.”

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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.