In the Manhattan double townhouse 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.
Gates, co-chair 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.
Half of this year's letter focuses on eliminating vaccine-preventable diseases including polio, and other global health issues.
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. However, the disease remains endemic in Nigeria, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan and there have been outbreaks in more than a dozen other countries. 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.
Gates has assumed the polio prevention mantle borne by FDR and inventors of vaccines to stop the scourge of the mid-20th century that left children weak, paralyzed and sometimes confined to iron lungs. Invitees to the "Polio Eradication and the Power of Vaccines" event included James Roosevelt Jr., a grandson of the 32nd president, who serves as CEO and president of Tufts Health Plan; and Dr. Peter Salk, a son of Dr. Jonas Salk, inventor of the first polio vaccine, an injectable inoculation using dead polio virus. Peter Salk, scientific director of the Jonas Salk Foundation, spent much of his medical career researching cancer, autoimmune diseases and HIV vaccines with his father. Debbe Sabin, a registered nurse, and Amy Sabin Horn represented their father, Dr. Albert Sabin, who invented the oral polio vaccine, made from live, weakened polio virus, administered to millions of American children.
The roster of public health speakers included Dr. David Oshinsky, a 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for his book "Polio: An American Story;" Dr. Helen Rees of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa and chair of the World Health Organization's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization; and Dr. Ciro de Quadros, executive vice president of the Sabin Vaccine Institute.
Last Friday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, British Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to double the United Kingdom's contribution to fighting polio in the next two years. That would enable 45 million more children to be fully vaccinated, advancing the goal of providing life-saving immunizations to every child who needs them.
But whether polio, like smallpox before, it, can be driven from the planet, remains to be seen. The World Health Organization sought to banish polio by 2000; other organizations set the goal for 2005. Those dates passed due to multiple impediments, including the hardiness of the poliovirus, which can survive several months in water and in human waste, the vulnerability of vaccines to temperature extremes, and the lack of sophisticated health services in countries where polio continues its spread.
But Gates, who has been a cheerleader for polio-fighting, came to New York to trumpet some successes. Polio cases in Nigeria declined from 388 in 2009 to 19 last year, and in India from 741 cases in 2009 to 41 last year, according to Gates Foundation figures.