$635 Million Is Donated to Fight Polio

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By David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 22, 2009

The global effort to eradicate polio, which began more than two decades ago and has suffered repeated setbacks, will receive an additional $635 million in an effort to finish the job over the next five years.

The money will be used to intensify vaccination campaigns in northern India and northern Nigeria, the two regions that account for more than 80 percent of the remaining cases of the paralyzing infection. In addition to those two countries, Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only others where "wild" polio virus still circulates.

Providing the new infusion of cash are Rotary International, the service organization that first proposed the eradication of polio and has raised $825 million toward the goal; the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; and the governments of Germany and Britain.

About $6.17 billion has been spent so far on the eradication effort. The United States has contributed $1.4 billion over the years and is the biggest single donor.

"If we don't do this, we will lose all the investment we have made in the past," Gates said yesterday at a Rotary conference in San Diego.

The $255 million Gates pledged comes 14 months after a $100 million donation his foundation made in 2007 as the virus resurged in India. Since then, he and his wife have committed themselves to eradicating malaria, a task that will be much harder than ending polio.

Yesterday, Gates suggested that a failure to rid the world of polio would be a major setback to progress in global public health that his foundation is spearheading.

"The value of this eradication initiative in energizing the global health movement can't be underestimated," he said. "It is super-important that we succeed with polio."

Some experts, however, have come to doubt that polio eradication is possible. The campaign has already missed two deadlines, in 2000 and 2005.

The number of cases worldwide last year was 1,625 -- about 500 more than in 2007 and three times the number in 2001, the best year of the campaign. Nevertheless, the incidence of the disease has been cut by 99 percent since the campaign began in 1988, when about 350,000 cases a year were recorded.

On a teleconference with reporters yesterday, the coordinator of the campaign at the World Health Organization said that failing to finish the job would result in returning to something close to the previous level of infection.

"This is an epidemic-prone disease," said R. Bruce Aylward, a Canadian physician and epidemiologist. "The idea that it can be controlled at the level where it is now is a false premise."

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