In the New York City double town house where President Franklin Delano Roosevelt recuperated from polio in the summer of 1921, billionaire Bill Gates on Monday began the latest chapter in his campaign to rout the disease from its last global strongholds.
"Let us pave the way for a future where children, no matter where they live, are not at risk of polio," Gates said. "We owe it not only to the children of today but the generations of people who made the progress that we have."
Gates, co-chairman and trustee of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest philanthropy, reiterated his commitment to global elimination of polio at a high-profile event a day after the 129th anniversary of Roosevelt's birth. Gates used the occasion to release his third Annual Letter, a blueprint of his philanthropic goals, at Roosevelt House on New York's Upper East Side, once a wedding present from Sara Roosevelt to her son Franklin and daughter-in-law Eleanor, the current home of the Public Policy Institute at Hunter College.
Polio is Gates' No. 1 health priority for 2011. Half his 21-page compilation of goals focuses on eliminating polio and protecting youngsters from other vaccine-preventable diseases such as measles, pneumonia and tetanus.
Gates pegged the cost of fighting polio for the next two years at $2 billion. Of that sum, $700 million "still has to be raised," he told an auditorium packed with foreign policy and health dignitaries. "Polio eradication is going to take amazing work. There's no guarantees, but I truly believe we can succeed."
Gates was introduced by ABC News anchor Diane Sawyer, who called him "the man who has given us the conviction that you can turn enormous pain into enormous purpose."
Sawyer shared how polio had touched her family in Louisville, Ky.
"I grew up in terror of polio," she said, recalling how parents and children helplessly watched suddenly stricken friends and playmates disappear, leaving behind empty seats in school rooms. "My aunt had polio. She was in a long leather brace, and in her 80s still limps and still reminds us of a time when there was a random terror in our world."
Worldwide, new cases of the potentially paralyzing and sometimes fatal childhood illness have been cut 99 percent since governments of the United States, Great Britain and India, along with the United Nations Children's Fund, Rotary International and Gates Foundation, launched the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988. But while polio may not be on the radar screen among residents of developed nations, the disease remains endemic in Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan, and there have been outbreaks in more than a dozen other nations. In 2010, outbreaks in countries that once had vanquished polio sickened hundreds, including 458 in Tajikistan; 93 in the Congo and 323 in Angola. There has been one reported case this year in Pakistan.
Speaker after speaker on Monday made the point that polio remains everyone's problem, because if the international community lets up the pressure to quash it, polio could make a comeback in the developed world.
"Polio is kind of like fire, where you've got to damp it down, and if you don't … succeed in doing that, it will flare up in places, and that's where most of our cases are now," Gates said. "You see a lot of deaths, a lot of paralyzed children. It's a terrible thing."