- Bill Gates released his annual “What I learned at work this year” letter, which reflects on the issues of the past year. In his 2018 edition, the Microsoft founder addressed polio.
- Polio cases have decreased by 99% worldwide, but in some countries, children are still affected by the disease.
- “I thought we would be closer to eradicating polio today than we are. Unfortunately, there were more cases in 2018 than in 2017 (29 versus 22),” Gates wrote.
- He added that it’s a challenge to vaccinate children in countries with political violence and war, but that he’s “optimistic” the world can eradicate polio soon.
On Saturday, Microsoft founder Bill Gates released his annual “What I learned at work this year” letter – a blog post reflecting on a year’s worth of developments in the global issues he works to address. The 2018 edition spanned a variety of topics, from the fight against Alzheimer’s disease to a possible global flu epidemic that could kill millions.
In the letter, Gates also addressed the eradication of polio, a highly infectious viral disease that mainly affects children under 5 years old, invading the nervous system and possibly leading to permanent paralysis or death. There is no cure, but multiple doses of the polio vaccine can protect a child for life.
Thanks to a globally coordinated effort to eradicate the disease, cases have decreased by more than 99% worldwide since 1988, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). But polio still has not been eliminated, and as long as one child still has the disease,the risk of the infection spreading remains.
“I thought we would be closer to eradicating polio today than we are. Unfortunately, there were more cases in 2018 than in 2017 (29 versus 22),” Gates wrote in the letter.
Officials at the WHO said they are “very concerned” about this slight increase from last year, Reuters reported in November.
In his letter, Gates explained some of the reasons that polio eradication has been difficult.
“I underestimated how hard it would be to vaccinate children in places where there’s political violence and war. Families move around to escape fighting, which makes it hard to keep track of children and make sure they get all the doses of the vaccine,” he wrote. “Or sewage systems get destroyed, allowing the virus to spread as children come into contact with an infected person’s excrement. This is a key reason why Afghanistan and Pakistan have never been free of polio-in fact they are the only two countries that have never been free of polio.” (The WHO website adds that a third country,Nigeria, has also never stopped transmission of polio.)
Unlike some other disease, polio truly can be eliminated.There are three strains of wild poliovirus, and none can survive for long periods outside the human body, according to the WHO. Without a person to infect, the virus will die out.
“I spend a lot of time on polio, part of it talking to the funders to make sure they continue their commitment even though eradication is taking longer than any of us would like,” Gates wrote. “I remind them of the huge benefits of success, and the risk that the disease will return in a big way if we don’t finish the job.”
Gates also detailed some positive developments in the fight to rid the world of the disease.
“We’re now able to test sewage samples to track the virus and find the source before an outbreak starts. And the global health community is finding creative ways to work in war zones, having stopped outbreaks in Syria and Somalia in recent years,” he wrote.
He added that a new oral vaccine for polio is being tested in Belgium and Panama, and the results on its effectiveness should be released in 2019.
“If this one proves effective, it would overcome some of the problems with previous oral vaccines when they’re used in places where few children are immunized,” Gates wrote.
(The oral vaccine is effective, inexpensive, and easy to administer, but very rarely, in communities with insufficient vaccine coverage, the weakened virus used in the vaccine may be able to spread, mutate, and regain its ability to infect the nervous system, according to the Polio Global Eradication Initiative. Still, children are “far more at risk” from polio itself than from any side effects of the vaccine, PGEI adds.)
“The new vaccine could be in use as soon as 2020,” Gates added. “Despite all the challenges, I am still optimistic that we can eradicate polio soon.”
- Read more:
- Bill Gates says a deadly flu epidemic is one of the biggest threats to humanity. It could kill nearly 33 million people in 6 months.
- WHO says spread of polio remains international health emergency
- Measles cases surged 30% last year due to ‘gaps’ in vaccine coverage, and experts say it’s ‘deeply concerning’