We must end polio – if only so Bill Gates can talk about something else

That sounds flip. But it’s not meant to undermine the global campaign to eradicate polio or (continue to) irritate the media folks at the Gates Foundation. It’s meant to underline the frustration I assume Bill Gates and many other advocates of this important global health goal must feel, even if they don’t say so.


News analysis (of sorts)

Today, at the United Nations, Bill Gates, heads of state from the polio-plagued countries Pakistan, Nigeria and Afghanistan, the head of the UN, the fiesty chief of the World Health Organization and other ‘global luminaries’ today repeated the call to push on with the ongoing effort to rid the world of polio.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said that the world is at a decisive moment and that he has made polio a “top priority” for his second term.

“Failure to eradicate polio would be unforgivable…. Failure is not an option,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization. India was recently declared polio free, a major achievement for the campaign.

Bill Gates and Jeff Raikes in Nigeria for polio vaccination

“The evidence is clear: if we all do our part, we can and will end this disease. But we must act quickly and give ourselves the very best chance to succeed,” said Gates, who had earlier explained on his personal blog why he flew 3,000 miles to speak for three minutes at this somewhat predictable event. “When we defeat polio, it will motivate us to aim for other great health and development milestones.”

Yeah, yeah. Same old stuff. But that last statement by Gates is key.

Chances are, this particular dog-and-pony show among all the other UN dog-and-pony shows — despite the alleged luminaries — may get only passing notice because, well, most people don’t really care about polio. That’s why they bring out luminaries – to get you to pay attention.

(NOTE: The first news report I saw on this gathering of luminosity was an AP story in which the reporter at the polio event asked Gates what he thinks of the new Windows 8 operating system. Gates said, “Very exciting.” No word if the journalist asked about polio….)

Most people likely are glad organizations like the Gates Foundation, Rotary International, the WHO, UNICEF and others care about polio. But I think it’s fair to say most people probably don’t much care, if they’re even paying attention.

In fact, I think it’s fair to say hardly anyone would be paying much attention to polio at all if not for the presence of the world’s richest guy and one of the leaders of the world’s biggest philanthropies taking this up as a cause. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the leading donors to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative and the money has of course done a lot. On the PR front of pushing polio eradication back up into the international spotlight, I’d say nobody has done more than Bill Gates.

Rotary, which has put more than $1.2 billion into this effort over decades of dedication to this cause — and today donated another $75 million to the global campaign — has with others like UNICEF actually done most of the ground work getting kids vaccinated. But Bill and Melinda Gates — and, before them actually, Bill Gates Sr. — have lent their prodigious wealth and star power to the cause for more than a decade. They are stubbornly dedicated to seeing this through and that’s been huge, I’d say.

Let’s face it: Polio is boring. Vaccines are also kind of boring, unless maybe you’re one of those folks who can actually comprehend the millions of lives saved by these simple shots or, conversely, believe (despite all the evidence to the contrary) that vaccines are a threat to our health and well-being.

Also, in the overall scheme of things, it is debatable how much of a direct difference it will make to the health and welfare of the world’s poor if we do finally rid the world of this crippling disease.

“New polio cases are the lowest they’ve ever been and there are currently just three countries, down from 125 in 1988, where polio is still endemic: Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan,” says Gates. “India has defeated polio and Angola has defeated it twice.  We have never been this close.”

There’s a tendency to pitch the polio effort as a marathon we need to finish, a milestone we need to reach. I’m not sure that’s really a successful sales pitch.

But I think Gates is right on the money: The real reason the international community has to succeed in polio eradication is that to fail would risk causing a crisis of confidence that will ripple through the global health, aid and development community.

To fail at polio eradication sends the wrong signal, Gates says, a signal that could undermine the many other, more apparently complex and ambitious efforts aimed at improving health and fighting poverty.

So let’s all hope that soon Bill Gates will not have much to say about polio and that these kind of dog-and-pony shows are no longer necessary — for polio at least. I, for one, would celebrate that milestone.

Children disabled by polio begging in Abuja

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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, follow him on Twitter @tompaulson and/or send a comment below.