Gates Foundation Sees Possible End to Polio Soon

Source: Wall Street Journal

By REBECCA BLUMENSTEIN and KHADEEJA SAFDAR

Jan. 22, 2016 1:35 p.m. ET

DAVOS, Switzerland—The world may well see its last case of polio in 2016, Bill andMelinda Gates said Friday, an event that would start a countdown toward the official eradication of the highly contagious and crippling disease.

“It’s possible that the last case will be in 2016,” Mr. Gates said. “We need some good execution and a little bit of luck.”

The co-chairs of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation laid out their agenda for the year ahead in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on the sidelines of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Polio-eradication leaders have made tremendous progress in the past few years, the couple noted. The World Health Organization said last year that Nigeria had successfully stopped transmission of polio in the country. That has left just two countries—Afghanistan and Pakistan—that still haven’t eliminated transmission of wild poliovirus, the cause of most cases of polio. If there are no more cases after 2016, polio-eradication leaders will meet their pushed-back goal of eradicating the disease in 2019. The WHO considers a disease to be eradicated if there are no cases for three years.

But ridding Pakistan of polio remains a huge challenge. At least 15 people were killed in a suicide attack on a polio-vaccination center in southwestern Pakistan earlier this month. In recent years, polio workers in Pakistan have been targeted by militants who accuse them of working as spies for the U.S. government.

 Afghan children wait to receive polio vaccines Tuesday during an antipolio campaign in the southern province of Kandahar. Afghanistan is one of only two countries in which the disease remains.  PHOTO: SANAULLAH SAIEM/ZUMA PRESS

Afghan children wait to receive polio vaccines Tuesday during an antipolio campaign in the southern province of Kandahar. Afghanistan is one of only two countries in which the disease remains. PHOTO: SANAULLAH SAIEM/ZUMA PRESS

Among their goals for 2016, Mr. and Mrs. Gates said they would continue to step up their investments in organizations that reduce poverty and disease. (RED), an AIDS organization founded by Bono and Bobby Shriver, said Friday at Davos that the Gates Foundation will match in 2016 every dollar up to $50 million generated for its Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. “It’s been a vehicle to remind people about the fight against HIV and the progress we’re making,” Mr. Gates said.

Despite economic turmoil and a historic refugee crisis, Mr. and Mrs. Gates said innovations in vaccines, seeds and the spread of mobile-banking technologies are raising more people from poverty and disease than any point in history. In 2016, they said they intend to focus many of these initiatives on women.

“We have to specifically look at women and girls issues, or we are not going to get the GDP rise that we want—if you don’t start them on the right path of great health, education and decision-making, and then economic opportunity,” Mrs. Gates said. Mobile banking, in particular, has empowered women, she noted.

Mr. and Mrs. Gates touched on the importance of primary health-care systems, which, they said, were instrumental in preventing the spread of the Ebola virus in Nigeria. Investments in these systems, the couple said, are necessary for averting future epidemics. “There could be an epidemic that could spread a lot quicker than the Ebola epidemic,” Mr. Gates said.

Mrs. Gates also noted that countries that invest in infrastructure help keep people at home rather than joining the tide of migrants fleeing to Europe. “Look at the change in Ethiopia in the past decade—the second-most-populous country in Africa,” she said. The country has invested in its health and agricultural sectors, a dam to provide more electricity, and a manufacturing sector.

When asked about the effect of plunging oil prices on clean energy investments, Mr. Gates sounded an optimistic note: “If we can get a really good battery for the car, using electricity will still be economical even against this very cheap oil.”

Mr. Gates recently announced a multibillion-dollar initiative to accelerate clean-energy research and development as part of a global effort to fight climate change.

Write to Rebecca Blumenstein at rebecca.blumenstein@wsj.com and Khadeeja Safdar at khadeeja.safdar@wsj.com