Bill Gates urged the world to stay focused on eradicating polio in an interview with Reuters on Monday.
The philanthropist said the Taliban is the biggest obstacle standing in the way of achieving this goal. He noted the need for continued political and financial commitments, with the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) needing $3.27 billion to support its 2019-2023 strategy.
The GPEI is among several global health funds facing replenishment, including the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, which will hold its replenishment event in October 2019, and Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, which is currently organizing its 2020 replenishment.
“We’ve got to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to zero,” Gates said. “We need government donors to stay committed.”
When it comes to Afghanistan, which reported the most cases of polio in recent years, Gates said that health workers are often stymied by the Taliban.
“[The Taliban is] what we don’t have predictability or control over,” he said. “Sometimes they stop the campaigns from taking place. But the ideal is when they allow house-to-house [vaccine] delivery.”
He expressed hope that health workers in the country will be allowed to protect children from polio in the months ahead, and said that the effort to fight the disease has found a strong partner in Pakistan with Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Gates said the world has made tremendous progress in the fight against polio, a disease that primarily affects children and can lead to paralysis within hours of an infection.
In 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries and paralyzed 350,000 people per year, according to the Gates Foundation. Since then, polio cases have plunged by more than 99% following a global vaccination effort that has reached more than 3 billion children.
Five years ago, India was declared poliofree. Whenever someone asks me how they did it, I tell them about one of the country’s lowest castes: the Musahar. https://t.co/X6AZTigfflpic.twitter.com/I2Ija5AyKY— Bill Gates (@BillGates) March 25, 2019
Today, polio remains endemic in only three countries — Nigeria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. Only 39 cases have been reported since 2018, 16 in Pakistan, and 23 in Afghanistan.
The Gates Foundation warns that global cases of polio could surge to 200,000 a year if the final push to eradicate the disease fails. The foundation also said that investing in defeating the disease now will save a lot of money in the future.
Gates highlighted India, where nearly 70% of global polio cases were found 12 years ago, as an example of a country that overcame barriers to defeat the disease. India has a large population living in extreme poverty, poor water and sanitation infrastructure that make the spread of polio more likely, and far-flung communities that can be hard to reach in vaccination drives.
Despite these challenges, health workers prevailed against polio — and on March 27, the country, along with the entire World Health Organization South-East Asia region, will mark five years of being certified polio-free. This kind of success, Gates noted in the interview with Reuters, proves that polio can be eradicated around the world.
Disclosure: The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen.
Editor's note: This piece has been updated to include a disclosure that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is a funding partner of Global Citizen. We regret the oversight.