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Ian Burrell: Macrosoft mission
February 01, 2013
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LONDON: Bill Gates used the annual Richard Dimbleby Lecture to make the claim that polio could be eradicated throughout the world by 2018. In a passionate speech on the need to reduce child mortality, the Microsoft founder and philanthropist set out on his mission to rid the world of polio and praised the British media for its role in highlighting issues of global poverty.

“The fight to eradicate polio is a proving ground, a test,” he said. “Its outcome will reveal what human beings are capable of, and suggest how ambitious we can be about our future.”

As he pledged the commitment of his Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to take on the acutely infectious virus, he acknowledged that polio now exists in only three countries; Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria. “Stopping these last cases of polio in these last countries, however, is among the most difficult tasks the world has ever assigned itself. It is also among the most important,” he said.

Gates said he had met with the presidents of the three countries where polio remains in order to encourage them to support vaccination programmes in hard to reach communities. “We have gotten to this point because vaccinators are wading through flooded rivers, governments are investing scarce resources in expensive surveillance strategies, and the global health community is on high alert,” he said. “These are not sustainable approaches. If we don’t get to zero soon, cases will shoot back up to the tens of thousands annually in dozens of countries.”

Wrong approach

He talked of problems in northern Nigeria, where false rumours have suggested that the polio vaccination causes infertility, and in Pakistan, where masked militants last month murdered nine vaccinators, including a 17-year-old girl. “To me, the nihilism behind these co-ordinated attacks — seeking out goodness to destroy it — is the opposite of what the eradication fight is about.”

Gates explained his 15-year personal journey from billionaire computer entrepreneur to funder of global health campaigns. His inspiration was a neighbour, Bill Foege, an epidemiologist who was “responsible for eradicating smallpox,” he said. “He’s one of the most articulate and inspiring leaders in a field where matters of life and death tend to be mummified by jargon.”

Speaking at the Royal Institution of Great Britain in London, Gates, 57, spoke of his excitement at the potential of science to combat disease, suing an exhibit of an “iron lung” respirator — once used to help polio victims to breathe — from the Science Museum as his prop. He said his “all-time favourite” statistic was a chart showing that the annual number of children dying under the age of five had fallen from more than 20 million to 6.9 million in the space of his lifetime.

He praised the British media for its coverage of global poverty issues, singling out Jonathan Dimbleby — who had invited him to give the lecture in memory of his father, head of the famous broadcasting dynasty — for his 1973 documentary on Ethiopia The Unknown Famine. Gates also cited the work of the BBC’s Michael Buerk in the Horn of Africa, a decade later.

In explaining his determination to conquer polio, Gates quoted from The Independent foreign correspondent Patrick Cockburn’s personal account of the polio epidemic in Cork in 1956.

On Tuesday night the British Polio Fellowship welcomed Gates’s stand as “fantastic news” but called on him to also remember sufferers of the neurological condition Post-Polio Syndrome, including 120,000 people in the United Kingdom.
The Independent

Mehreen Zahra-Malik: Where healers get hurt

ISLAMABAD: Pakistani health worker Bushra Bibi spent eight years trekking to remote villages, carefully dripping polio vaccine into toddlers’ pursed mouths to protect them from the crippling disease.

Now the 35-year-old mother is too scared to go to work after masked men on motorbikes gunned down nine of her fellow health workers in a string of attacks last month.

“I have seen so much pain in the eyes of mothers whose children have been infected. So I have never seen this as just a job. It is my passion,” she said. “But I also have a family to look after.... Things have never been this bad.”

After the deaths, the United Nations put its workers on lockdown. Immunisations by the Pakistani government continued in parts of the country. But the violence raised fresh questions over stability in the South Asian nation.

Pakistan’s Taliban insurgency, convinced that the anti-polio drive is just another Western plot against Muslims, has long threatened action against anyone taking part in it.

Critics say the attacks on the health workers are a prime example of the government’s failure to formulate a decisive policy on tackling militancy, despite pressure from key ally the United States, the source of billions of dollars in aid.

Tough challenges

For years, authorities were aware that Taliban commanders had broadcast claims that the vaccination drive was actually a plot to sterilise people.

“Ever since they began to give these polio drops, children are reaching maturity a lot earlier, especially girls. Now 12 to 13-year-old girls are becoming women. This causes indecency in society,” said 45-year-old Mir Alam Khan, a carpet seller in the northern town of Dera Ismail Khan.

The father of four didn’t allow any of his children to receive vaccinations.

“Why doesn’t the United States give free cures for other illnesses? Why only polio? There has to be an agenda,” he said.

While health workers risk attacks by militants, growing suspicions from ordinary Pakistanis are lowering their morale. Fatima, a health worker in the northwestern city of Peshawar, said that reaction to news of the CIA polio campaign was so severe that many of her colleagues quit.

“People’s attitudes have changed. You will not believe how even the most educated and well-to-do people will turn us away, calling us US spies and un-Islamic,” said the 25-year-old who did not give her last name for fear of reprisals. “Boys call us names, they say we are ‘indecent women.’”

Pakistan’s government has tried to shatter the myths that can undermine even the best-intentioned health projects by turning to moderate clerics and urging them to issue religious rulings supporting the anti-polio efforts.

Tahir Ashrafi, head of the All Pakistan Ulema Council, said the alliance of clerics had done its part, and it was up to the government to come to the rescue of aid workers.

“Clerics can only give fatwas and will continue to come together and condemn such acts,” he said. “What good are fatwas if the government doesn’t provide security?”

Vaccinations cut Pakistan’s polio cases from 20,000 in 1994 to 56 in 2012 and the disease seemed isolated in a pocket in the north. But polio is spread person-to-person, so any outbreak risks re-infecting communities cleared of the disease.

Gates to kindness

William Henry “Bill” Gates with an estimated wealth of $65 billion is as rich as two Kenyas, three Trinidads and a dozen Montenegros but is now engaged in the process of ridding himself of all the money in the hope of extending the lives of others less fortunate than himself. Having already given away $28 billion, the 57-year-old Microsoft co-founder now intends to eradicate polio, the Telegraph reported.

“I’m certainly well taken care of in terms of food and clothes,” Gates said. “Money has no utility to me beyond a certain point. Its utility is entirely in building an organisation and getting the resources out to the poorest in the world.”

Gates owns a lakeside estate in Washington state worth about $150 million. The house has a swimming pool equipped with an underwater music system. But even at the age of 57, Gates is a restless man and wants something more.

Gates and his wife Melinda have so far given away $28 billion via their charitable foundation, more than $8 billion of it to improve global health.

“We’re focused on the help of the poorest in the world, which really drives you into vaccination. You can actually take a disease and get rid of it altogether, like we are doing with polio,” Gates told the daily. “Polio’s pretty special because once you get an eradication you no longer have to spend money on it. It’s just there as a gift for the rest of time.”

Harsh reality

In 1990, some 12 million children under the age of five died. The figure today is about seven million, or 19,000 per day.

According to the UN, the leading causes of death are pneumonia (18 per cent), pre-birth complications (14 per cent), diarrhoea (11 per cent), complications during birth (nine per cent) and malaria (seven per cent).

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend $1.8 billion in the next six years to tackle polio.

“All you need is over 90 per cent of children to have the vaccine drop three times and the disease stops spreading. The number of cases eventually goes to zero. When we started, we had over 400,000 children a year being paralysed and we are now down to under 1,000 cases a year. The great thing about finishing polio is that we’ll have resources to get going on malaria and measles,” Gates said.
Indo Asian-News Service

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