$635 million effort to wipe out polio in India, Pakistan

January 22nd, 2009 - 11:25 am ICT by IANS  

Washington, Jan 22 (IANS) An international effort spearheaded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has pledged $635 million towards eradicating the crippling polio disease with focus on India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.The Gates Foundation has pledged $255 million, while the governments of Germany and Britain will together donate a total of $280 million, according to an announcement made in San Diego, California.

Rotary International said its members will raise $100 million over the next three years towards the effort. Rotary has been a long time advocate for eradicating polio, raising funds and deploying volunteers to inoculate people.

The money will ultimately be used by the World Health Organisation and Unicef, adding to funds from other countries and philanthropies. The money will be focussed on the four countries where polio remains endemic: India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria.

The new funding is being combined with visits by Gates and polio experts to India - where they travelled in November - and Nigeria to work with political and religious leaders on ways to improve inoculation work.

“In 2008 there were some setbacks,” said Bill Gates, co-chairman of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “In 2009 we’re going to get those turned in the other direction.”

In a conference call with reporters, Gates declined to set a target date to achieve the goal of polio eradication “because nobody knows what it will take”.

“We are in the end game,” Gates said. “I’m optimistic that we will be successful. I’m personally very committed.”

The grants add to the roughly $6 billion spent on polio eradication since 1988, when the WHO and partners launched an effort to wipe out the crippling disease. But the large new influx of funding shows the challenges in completely eliminating an infectious disease.

The polio vaccine was first developed in the 1950s and the disease was quickly killed off in the US and many parts of the world. Strong gains against polio continued through the 1990s, but an uptick last year in the number of reported cases has health officials and donors concerned that it could re-infect parts of the world.

That has sparked a fresh round of donations and an effort to work more closely with countries that still have polio. “The idea that this can be easily controlled now is a false premise,” said Bruce Aylward, director of the WHO’s polio-eradication programme.

Health officials said an additional $350 million is still needed in 2009 and 2010 to support the eradication efforts. But the core challenge is how to inoculate hundreds of millions of children.

The new money will be used to support national immunisation days in the countries and provide extra vaccines to children in high-risk areas.

Inoculations will focus on children under five years. Donations will also go into vaccine research and finding new ways to measure polio outbreaks, officials at the organisations said.

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