x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Gates on polio: Zero is the number we need to get to

Addressing a crowd of hundreds at the start of the first Global Vaccine Summit in the UAE, Bill Gates said the eradication of the deadly disease was tantalisingly close.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates before the summit yesterday. Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Gates have been working together for five years. Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi
Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces, with billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates before the summit yesterday. Sheikh Mohammed and Mr Gates have been working together for five years. Ryan Carter / Crown Prince Court - Abu Dhabi

ABU DHABI // Polio will be relegated to the history books in five years, billionaire businessman Bill Gates vowed as he kicked off the first Global Vaccine Summit in the capital last night.

Addressing a crowd of hundreds to start the two-day conference, Mr Gates said the eradication of the deadly disease was tantalisingly close. Today, there are the fewest polio cases in the fewest countries ever.

The summit, which continues today, will call for the final push to get the vaccine to fight the disease to every child in the world.

"In my very first career at Microsoft, the dream was to put a computer on the desk in every home," said Mr Gates, co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "In my second career, at the foundation, the dream is to make vaccines available to every child."

Mr Gates celebrated the tremendous progress that has been made globally since the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988.

Back then, polio paralysed or killed an estimated 350,000 children annually. Last year, there were 223 cases. It represents a 99.9 per cent reduction in the number of cases globally.

A major milestone has been India, once the country where the crippling condition was most prevalent. It has now gone two years without a new wild polio case, despite a large population, inconsistent infrastructure and hard-to-reach migrant groups.

Watch Bill Gates' speech at the Global Vaccine Summit in Abu Dhabi here.

But while last night was very much about celebrating the global effort in fighting polio - the audience was silenced by images of success stories from countries now free of the disease - Mr Gates also focused on the need to do more.

The job, he said, was not yet done with polio still endemic in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The Global Summit, he said, was a historic event that could achieve one of the greatest steps in health care in this generation by making polio only the second disease, after smallpox in 1980, to be declared eradicated.

"You have heard we are very close," he said. "But it is fair to say the last two years have given us a bit of a humbling lesson to get these last three countries. To win the fight we are going to really have to knuckle down.

"Some say if you have so few cases couldn't you just back off? The answer is no. Because we have so few cases, it is all the [more] important to get to zero. If we don't get to zero we have to continue this high level of spending and high level of resources just to avoid going back to where we were at the beginning.

"Only by getting back to zero then can we stop doing these special efforts, and take all of this energy and resources and put them against the other diseases. Zero is the number we need to get to."

Mr Gates hailed the generosity of philanthropists such as Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces.

"Five years ago I first met His Highness, the Crown Prince, and since then we have built a very strong partnership as well as an enduring friendship, and we are collaborating in this global health endeavour in taking on impressive goals together."

Despite polio being the biggest focus of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Mr Gates also addressed the need to bridge the gap between the accessibility of vaccines in rich and poor countries.

"Right now we live in a world where a child born in a poor country does not have the same shot in life as a child born in a rich country. At the same time, we live in a world to correct this injustice.

"With your continued dedication and leadership, we need to get it done.

"We have a unique window of opportunity now to end polio and save millions of lives with vaccines. With your continued dedication and leadership we can give every child this opportunity, unlocking more human promise than ever before. This will be a great gift for our generation and generations to come."

Today we are closer than ever to the day where no child will go without vaccines, he said.

Sheikha Lubna Al Qasimi, the Minister of International Cooperation, also spoke of the need for every child to have access to vaccines at the event.

"We are inching closer to delivering a polio-free world," Sheikha Lubna told the audience.

"Imagine our joy when polio finally becomes a closed chapter in history."

 

jbell@thenational.ae