Microsoft founder Bill Gates's foundation and the government of Norway yesterday gave grants of more than $1 billion to immunize children in poor countries against common diseases -- a blockbuster philanthropic gesture intended to save hundreds of thousands of lives in Africa and Asia.
The grant of $750 million by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation matches a similar contribution made by the software mogul's foundation five years ago. By guaranteeing large amounts of money over several years, the foundation has sought to build public health infrastructure around the world, encourage poor countries to come up with innovative long-range plans, and give incentives to vaccine manufacturers to develop vaccines that help the world's poor.
The Gateses have also used their visibility to leverage support from governments and organizations around the world and make children's immunizations an international public health priority.
"It is a challenge to keep world health in front of people," said Bill Gates, referring to the difficulty of focusing attention on perennial problems. "It is the tragedy that happens again and again and again. Because it is always there in the background, it can lose support."
As an investment, Gates said in a press briefing, vaccinating children against preventable diseases such as diphtheria, measles and hepatitis B provides an unmatched return. "We're basically saving lives for less than $1,000 per life," he said.
Former Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg announced an additional grant of $290 million by his country.
The money will go to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), an umbrella group of governments, health organizations, vaccine manufacturers and scientists that includes the World Health Organization. According to the group, about 2 million children die each year in poor countries from diseases that are easily prevented by vaccinations.
The group aims to get 90 percent of the world's poorest children vaccinated by 2015, which will require $8 billion to $12 billion in additional funds -- money that the group hopes can be leveraged through the grants announced yesterday.
"In five years, GAVI has immunized tens of millions of children and saved more than 670,000 lives as a result," said Melinda Gates.
Julian Lob-Levyt, executive secretary of GAVI, said declining vaccination rates had been reversed in many poor countries, especially in Africa.
"Vaccines are truly a miracle, but only if they actually reach children in need," Yoweri Museveni, the president of Uganda, said in a statement that described the vaccine initiative as "a lifeline."
Lob-Levyt said the United States currently gives about $60 million a year to the vaccine effort.