Gates, U.K. Boost Polio Funding to Speed End of Crippling Virus

Bill Gates and U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron announced as much as $166 million in extra financing for polio eradication, easing a shortfall in funding that hinders a global effort to stop the crippling virus.

The U.K. will double its current contribution to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which plans to eliminate the disease in two years, Cameron said today at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Billionaire Gates, whose charitable foundation has provided more than $1 billion for polio programs in the past decade, announced that the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation will contribute $102 million in additional funding.

The money will narrow a $720 million financing gap that world health authorities say threatens to curb eradication efforts just as polio cases ebb in India and Nigeria, historically the worst-affected countries.

“We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rid the world of the evil of polio,” Cameron said in a statement. “We have the vaccines and the tools to do it. All that’s missing is real and sustained political will to see this effort through to the end.”

The U.K. will contribute as much as 40 million pounds ($64 million) in extra funding over the next two years provided other donors bolster support for the eradication program, Cameron said. The additional money would enable 45 million children to be immunized against polio.

“Eliminating the last 1 percent of polio requires the kind of political leadership shown by the U.K. government and Prime Minister Cameron today,” Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft Corp., the world’s biggest software maker, said in the statement. “Eradicating polio requires innovative thinking and political will, as well as funding from a range of donors, to support an aggressive program that will get the job done.”

The ancient virus paralyzed millions of people worldwide in the 20th century. At the height of the most extensive polio outbreak ever, in 1952, almost 60,000 cases with more than 3,000 deaths were reported in the U.S. alone.

The disease was eliminated from the Western hemisphere after vaccines became widely available in the mid-1950s. Yet before the Global Polio Eradication Initiative began in 1988, the disease still paralyzed at least 350,000 children in more than 125 countries annually. The malady struck 946 people in 20 countries last year. Tajikistan had the most cases with 458.

In 2010, India and Nigeria cut cases by 95 percent each.

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