Why Gates Should End the Polio Problem

Developmental policy – which often seeks to help the disenfranchised meet a higher social or economic standard – is widely considered to be a thankless quest for idealists who set lofty goals, only to be disappointed.

Recently, Microsoft mogul Bill Gates has been heavily criticized for his initiative targeting the eradication of the polio virus plaguing numerous developing countries. Critics maintain that Gates should settle for the realistic goal of controlling polio and that other health-related causes are in more urgent need of funding.

But more than 9 billion dollars has already been invested in his polio initiative, and it is logical and ethical for Gates to continue his fight.

Since 1988, the number of polio cases per year has decreased by 99 percent. However the final push to eliminate the remaining 1 percent is proving difficult due to the nature of the virus. Polio is commonly transmitted through the fecal-oral route meaning populations that do not have access to potable water are at highest risk of contracting the virus. As of now, approximately three quarters of polio cases come from Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. When vaccination efforts succeed in one endemic region, the virus reinfects a formerly polio-free area.  

Another hurdle to overcome is the vaccine itself. The cheapest vaccine is administered orally and involves multiple doses over long periods costing $2 to $3 per dose. The oral vaccine uses a weakened strain of polio that can put people with low immunity at risk of contracting the virus itself. Further, there is a risk that the mutation of the live vaccine can result in the child's becoming paralyzed.

In addition to urging Gates to be content with the relative success of past campaigns, critics voice concern that Gates' polio initiative diverts funding from other Foundation issues that are perhaps more pressing. As one skeptic put it, “global health does not depend on polio eradication.”

While that may be so, the highly contagious nature of polio makes this virus a threat to not only infected populations but to humanity itself. With his campaign, Gates has shifted the development paradigm to seek a permanent solution, and to not settle for the comfort of amelioration. Gates’ resolute attitude towards despairing global health issues is necessary in order to bring about substantial change and curtail apathy.

Photo Credit: UN Multimedia