Bill Gates pushes world health assembly to boost vaccinations

It’s a simple thing, a vaccine.

But the simple lack of a vaccine in a poor community can bring death, heartache and even financial ruin to a family. It does, every day, with a yearly toll in the millions, mostly child deaths.

Bill Gates at World Health Assembly

“That was a sobering realization for me,” said Bill Gates, speaking today to the World Health Assembly and representatives of 193 member states.

Gates recalled when in 1998 he first read about rotavirus, hadn’t heard of it, and was stunned to learn the bug was killing half a million kids every year. He kept reading about vaccines and one of the primary missions of the Seattle philanthropy took shape.

“Thirty years ago, my colleagues and I envisioned a computer on every desktop,” Gates said. Now, what he’d be even more excited to see is that every child, anywhere in the world, has access to these inexpensive, basic tools of health.

“Vaccines are an extremely elegant technology,” he said. “They are inexpensive, easy to deliver and are proven to protect children from disease. At Microsoft, we dreamed about technologies that were so powerful and simple.”

Gates called upon those in attendance and world leaders to commit to expanding the use of vaccines in recognition that they are the most powerful means for achieving health.

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Just by assuring every child is vaccinated (or more realistically, 90 percent), he said we can finally eradicate polio. Just by getting the basic vaccines out to the majority of children in the world would prevent millions of easily preventable child deaths every year. Families can avoid the tragic loss of a child and the sometimes terribly costly care, or loss of labor, that can tip them into poverty.

Many developing nations are already reaching the 90 percent mark, Gates said, citing Bangladesh, Nicaragua, Rwanda and Vietnam. Yet there are places where children never see a single vaccine, he said.

Gates wanted his audience to imagine what the world would be like if we could get this cheap, simple tool out there to every child. He talked about the polio campaign and urged everyone to stick it out. He mentioned PATH’s new meningitis vaccine project as an example of how innovative financing made it feasible to get a life-saving vaccine out to some of the poorest parts of Africa. Here is a synopsis of his vision.

Progress is being made through initiatives like GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, Gates said. But funding for GAVI is so far insufficient, progress is fragile and won’t be sustainable without greater support and investment from donors and governments, he said.

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Gates called upon those gathered at the World Health Assembly to take some specific actions:

  1. Donor countries, you must increase your investment in vaccines and immunization, even though you are coping with budget crises. The GAVI Pledging meeting next month gives you and your governments the opportunity to show your support.
  2. Pharmaceutical companies, you must make sure vaccines are affordable for poor countries. Specifically, you must make a commitment to tiered pricing.
  3. All 193 member states, you must make vaccines a central focus of your health systems, to ensure that all your children have access to existing vaccines now—and to new ones as they become available.

If donors are generous, Gates said, we can prevent 4 million deaths by 2015 and, by 2020, we can prevent 10 million deaths.

“Together, and with your leadership, we can make this the decade in which we take full advantage of the technology of vaccines. When we do it, we will build an entirely new future based on the understanding that global health is the cornerstone of global prosperity.”

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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.