NEW YORK — On Monday, in a Manhattan town house that once belonged to polio’s most famous victim, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bill Gates made an appeal for one more big push to wipe out world polio.
Although that battle began in 1985 and Gates started making regular donations to the cause only in 2005, he has emerged in the last two years both as one of the biggest donors — he has now given $1.3 billion, more than the amount raised over 25 years by Rotary International — and as the loudest voice for eradication.
As new outbreaks create new setbacks each year, he has given ever more money, not only for research but for the grinding work on the ground: paying millions of vaccinators $2 or $3 stipends to get pink polio drops into the mouths of children in villages, slums, markets and train stations.
He also journeys to remote Indian and Nigerian villages to be photographed giving the drops himself. Though he lacks Angelina Jolie’s pneumatic allure, his lingering “world’s richest man” cologne is just as aphrodisiacal to TV cameras.
He also uses that celebrity to press political leaders. Rich Gulf nations have been criticized for giving little for a disease that now chiefly affects Muslim children; last week in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Gates and Crown Prince Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan jointly donated $50 million each to vaccinate children in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Davos, Switzerland, Gates and the British prime minister, David Cameron, announced that Britain would double its $30 million donation. Last month, when the Pakistani president, Asif Ali Zardari, went to Washington for the diplomat Richard C. Holbrooke’s funeral, Gates offered him $65 million to initiate a new polio drive. Twelve days later, publicly thanking him, Zardari did so.
However, even as he presses forward, Gates faces a hard question from some eradication experts and bioethicists: Is it right to keep trying?
Although caseloads are down more than 99 percent since the campaign began in 1985, getting rid of the last 1 percent has been like trying to squeeze Jell-O to death. As the vaccination fist closes in one country, the virus bursts out in another.
In 1985, Rotary raised $120 million to do the job as its year-2000 “gift to the world.”
The effort has now cost $9 billion, and each year consumes another $1 billion.
By contrast, the 14-year drive to wipe out smallpox, according to Dr. Donald A. Henderson, the former World Health Organization officer who began it, cost only $500 million in today’s dollars.
Henderson has argued so outspokenly that polio cannot be eradicated that he said in an interview last week: “I’m one of certain people that the WHO doesn’t invite to its experts’ meetings anymore.” Recently, Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, the influential British medical journal, said via Twitter that “Bill Gates’ obsession with polio is distorting priorities in other critical BMGF areas. Global health does not depend on polio eradication.” (The initials are for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.)
And Arthur L. Caplan, director of the University of Pennsylvania’s bioethics center, who himself spent nine months in a hospital with polio as a child, said in an interview, “We ought to admit that the best we can achieve is control.”
Those arguments infuriate Gates. “These cynics should do a real paper that says how many kids they’re really talking about,” he said in an interview. “If you don’t keep up the pressure on polio, you’re accepting 100,000 to 200,000 crippled or dead children a year.”
Right now, there are fewer than 2,000. The skeptics acknowledge that they are arguing for accepting more paralysis and death as the price of shifting that $1 billion to vaccines and other measures that prevent millions of deaths from pneumonia, diarrhea, measles, meningitis and malaria.
“And think of all the money that would be saved,” Gates went on, turning sarcastic. “It’d be like 5 percent of the dog food market in the United States.”
(Americans spend about $18 billion a year on pet food, according to the American Pet Products Association.)
Both he and the skeptics agree that polio is far harder to beat than smallpox was.
One injection stops smallpox, but in countries with open sewers, children need polio drops up to 10 times.
Only one victim in every 200 shows symptoms, so when there are 500 paralysis cases, as in the recent Congo Republic outbreak, there are 100,000 more silent carriers.