Bill Gates Pushes for Worldwide End to Polio in Annual Letter

In his third annual letter, the Microsoft chairman and co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation discussed the need to eradicate polio around the world once and for all.

Bill Gates has taken on the fight to end polio in his third annual letter, published online by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Founded in 1994 as the William H. Gates Foundation, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation aims to improve public health in developing countries.

Gates, the Microsoft chairman and co-chair of the foundation, held a public event at the former home of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a polio victim, to discuss his campaign against polio. The former "world's richest man" has donated $1.3 billion to fight polio, The New York Times reports.

In addition, he funds stipends of $2 or $3 for pink polio drops to vaccinate children in villages, slums, train terminals and public markets, according to the Times.

"In the same way that during my Microsoft career I talked about the magic of software, I now spend my time talking about the magic of vaccines," Gates wrote in his letter. "Vaccines have taken us to the threshold of eradicating polio."

A year ago, Gates and wife Melinda pledged $10 billion over the next 10 years to deliver vaccines to children in developing countries and to aid research in this area.

Countries still fighting the transmission of polio in 2010 included Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan, but outbreaks occurred in 16 countries last year, according to Gates.

He expressed concern that polio will return to countries where it was eliminated. "Eradication could save the world up to $50 billion over the next 25 years," Gates said.

Still, progress has been made, he noted. India's polio cases decreased from 741 in 2009 to 41 in 2010 and Nigeria's from 388 to 18.

Polio, short for poliomyelitis, is an infectious viral disease that involves high fever, motor paralysis and atrophy of skeletal muscles. The disease causes nerve inflammation that either kills its victims outright or produces various degrees of paralysis, permanent disability and deformity.

Despite the progress in greatly reducing the spread of polio with the advent of effective vaccines in the 1950s, it remains a threat, according to Gates.

Providing the polio vaccine to children under 5 in poor countries will cost $1 billion a year, he wrote in his letter, posted Jan. 31. "We have to be aggressive about continuing these campaigns until we succeed in eradicating that last 1 percent," he said.

With every $2,000 cut in vaccine aid, a child dies, Gates wrote. "We need to bring the cases down to zero, maintain careful surveillance to make sure the virus is truly gone and keep defenses up with polio vaccines until we've confirmed success."

Dr. Jonas Salk introduced the polio vaccine in 1955 following a fund-raising campaign by the March of Dimes. Polio was eradicated in the United States by 1979.

In addition to the Gates Foundation, other organizations involved in the fight to eradicate polio include WHO (the World Health Organization), Rotary International, the Centers for Disease Control and UNICEF.

The letter also covered progress against malaria, HIV/AIDS and preventing neonatal deaths. Scientists have discovered antibodies that can block HIV infection but have been unable to make a vaccine to have patients generate them, Gates noted.

Gates has also taken an interest in agricultural development in poor areas. "When farmers increase their productivity, nutrition is improved and hunger and poverty are reduced," he wrote.

In April 2010, Gates and the foreign ministers of the United States, Spain, Canada and South Korea launched the Global Agriculture and Food Security Program and pledged $1 billion over three years. Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is also active on the agricultural front, Gates said.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, the Gates Foundation's primary focus is education. The foundation funds the development of online tools for K-12 and college students, Gates wrote. These include online dashboards for teachers to keep track of how students are doing. Other tools include instructional videos in areas such as arithmetic, biology and physics. He and Melinda visited schools in Tennessee in the fall to sit in on teacher self-evaluations through video.

"Ultimately, the goal is to gather high-quality feedback from multiple sources-test scores, student surveys, videos, principals and fellow teachers-so that teachers know how to improve," Gates wrote. "I am very enthusiastic about the potential of innovation to help solve many of the problems with our education system."