Bill Gates Fighting to Eradicate Polio, But at What Cost?
Polio, a particularly destructive disease that paralyzes and kills children, has claimed millions of lives globally over the years. However, in 1985, a substantive push was made to wipe out the disease. Billions of dollars were poured into the initiative since then from various non-profit and non-governmental organizations, but in 2005, Bill Gates, one of the world’s wealthiest individuals, made it his personal crusade.
With his immensely powerful, well-funded non-profit, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Gates has become a powerful advocate of eradicating the disease once and for all. He has personally donated 1.3 billion dollars to aid in vaccination efforts around the world, and he’s used his celebrity status to influence leading figures and foreign governments to donate their own money and efforts as well. According to a New York Times article, the Rotary Club raised 120 million dollars in 1985, and since then the push to beat polio has cost 9 billion dollars and uses up an additional billion every year.
At the current rate, there are fewer than 2,000 cases of polio, meaning that the measures have been tremendously effective. In 1988, there were approximately 350,000 cases. However, many experts say that to completely eradicate the disease is impossible, and attempting to do so would mean directing money to an idealistic cause that could better be used on other, more widespread diseases like the measles.
Proponents may use smallpox as an example of a global health triumph, the disease having been eradicated in 1978 after similar sustained measures. But critics of a huge financial push with polio eradication cite the fact that polio is a very different disease, one in which many victims initially have no apparent symptoms, making it much more difficult to track. A smallpox vaccination is needed only once to be effective, whereas some children need multiple doses of the polio vaccine. What’s more, the disease quickly mutates and spreads, making contamination especially tricky.
The NYT article quotes Richard Horton, editor of the acclaimed British medicine journal, the Lancet, who argued on Twitter, “Bill Gates’s obsession with polio is distorting priorities in other critical Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation areas. Global health does not depend on polio eradication.”
Still, Gates is staunch in his resolve to continue the effort to eradicate polio, claiming that it will still save thousands of lives, and could be more cost-effective over time than mere control measures.