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January 31, 2011

Gates: Polio eradication can strengthen health programs

  Bill Gates




Bill Gates today named his top priority in global health: eradicating polio. 

Why has a disease that struck just 946 people globally in 2010, at latest count, climb to the top of the list of his foundation, which has given billions of dollars in global health funding?

Gates’ answers to that question, which were made during a Webcast moderated by ABC TV’s Diane Sawyer, were illuminating – and relate to how the fight against one disease can affect others, affecting the ability of Health Ministries and their partners to build stronger health systems.

His arguments:

  • The end game is most difficult, but it is within view. If the eradication fight stops, he said, polio will spread again, reversing the progress that has reduced the number of cases by 99 percent since 1988.
  •  A world without polio will save lots of money. With eradication, it will free up “billions of dollars” over the years that would have gone to fighting polio and now could be put to other use, he said.
  •  And the fight against polio has helped strengthen other health programs, notably other efforts to increase vaccine coverage.

It’s the last point that is most relevant to MLI’s assistance to Ministries of Health’s efforts in bolstering their priorities. Experts have debated whether such intensive vertical approaches in health – those that target one disease, for instance, with vaccination campaigns – help create a better health system.

Those sitting with Gates on the Webcast supported his argument that a polio eradication campaign can have beneficial spill-over effects. One, Dr. Ciro de Quadros, Executive Vice President of the Sabin Vaccine Institute, said that polio eradication drives in Latin America helped create a “culture of prevention” that led to an expansion of health services.

“When you do these campaigns in the right way, you reinforce the health infrastructure,” de Quadros said. “It’s not only the eradication of the disease but it’s also the infrastructure created to introduce the other vaccines. (In Latin America), the eradication of polio was followed by the eradication of measles, and the eradication of measles was followed by the eradication of rubella.”

Helen Rees, a professor of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and Chair of the World Health Organization’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization, agreed with de Quadros that if polio eradication efforts are done properly, it can benefit other programs.

Polio vaccine campaigns open up a “gateway process,” she said. “We desperately need to strengthen vaccine services, for all of the basic childhood diseases. And on top of that, we need to introduce other vaccines, like pneumococcal vaccines, which will have a profound effect” in reducing deaths of children.

Four of MLI's five countries recorded polio cases last year: Senegal (18 cases), Nepal (6), Mali (4) and Sierra Leone (1).

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