Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only remaining countries where the polio virus is in circulation. "The last steps to eradication are by far the toughest," said Mark Suzman, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which he said is committed to a global "polio-free future." To that end, the foundation on Sunday announced a $1.2 billion allocation to the effort, Reuters reports. Polio has no known cure, though three injections of vaccine provide near-total immunity. Global health organizations have warned that outbreaks are possible in other countries, as well; a vaccine-derived version recently has been detected in the US, London, and Jerusalem.
Polio is a highly infectious disease spread mainly through contamination by fecal matter. Bill Gates, the Microsoft co-founder who runs the foundation with his ex-wife, Melinda French Gates, told the Telegraph that flooding is the biggest obstacle the campaign faces in Pakistan. "Until the floods came I would have said, 'Hey, we're just so close in Pakistan,'" Gates said. "But that's going to put us back at least a year or 18 months. ... It's kind of stunning." Heath officials said the donation will cover vaccinations for 370 million children per year, as well as help develop future vaccines. The foundation has contributed nearly $5 billion to fight polio since 2007.
In 1988, polio was endemic in 125 countries, paralyzing about 1,000 children a day. Now, Gates warns against complacency, per the Telegraph, fearing that other crises will divert resources from the fight against polio. Pakistan and Afghanistan, he notes, have been dealing with humanitarian crises in the past year. Having sufficient access in Afghanistan might require negotiating with the Taliban. "I would do pretty much anything to help the polio campaign," Gates said. (Read more polio stories.)