The obscure bug that set off Bill Gates, awakening a geeky giant | 

Tom Paulson

Nelson Zambrana cradles his child sick from rotavirus in Nicaraguan hospital

It kills anywhere from a quarter-million to half-a-million kids every year and is one of the world’s leading causes of child mortality.

But it wasn’t too long ago hardly anybody had even heard of it.

Rotavirus — the killer bug that set off Bill Gates and gave direction to his philanthropy.

“No matter where we looked in the world, about 40 percent of all kids under 5 years old in hospitals for severe and life-threatening diarrhea had rotavirus,” said John Wecker, head of Seattle-based PATH’s vaccine access and delivery program. PATH has a long history advocating for a rotavirus vaccine.

“We’d go into these countries where huge numbers of kids were dying from diarrhea and they’d say ‘Rota what?” Wecker said. “We don’t have that here. Nobody had ever heard of it.”

Today, an international group that represents the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation‘s single largest philanthropic project aimed at expanding children’s vaccinations announced it was launching a major new global jab against rotavirus and another big killer of young children, pneumococcal disease. The campaign focuses on Africa, where these two infectious diseases are rampant.

“The death toll of rotavirus and pneumococcal infections in Africa is particularly devastating, and this is where these vaccines will make the most significant impact, not only in lives saved, but also in terms of healthy lives lived,” said Seth Berkley, CEO of this group known as GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

It’s a major milestone for GAVI, for a number of reasons, but in a way just another big step forward in a decade of significant progress for this alliance created to expand access to childhood immunizations in poor countries.

Since it was launched, hundreds of millions of children have been vaccinated and an estimated 5 million deaths prevented.

That’s more deaths averted than has so far been credited to the much-larger Global Fund for Fighting AIDS, TB and Malaria — or any other single project in the global health arena, for that matter. Continue reading

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.

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.

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.”