Ukraine war hinders polio vaccine efforts, Bill Gates tells Abu Dhabi forum

Philanthropist says some donors are cutting financial aid for fighting diseases

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The war in Ukraine has hampered efforts to immunise children against polio, philanthropist and co-founder of Microsoft Bill Gates said on Sunday.

At an event on catalytic philanthropy at New York University Abu Dhabi, Mr Gates said vital financial aid spent on fighting diseases such as polio was now being diverted to defence budgets, rebuilding war-torn areas and helping refugees.

“After the Ukraine war started, we have had some donors cut their aid. This will be tough until that war is over," he said.

The war in Yemen, instability and social resistance in Afghanistan and Pakistan were also setbacks to vaccination campaigns, he said.

“You have the war in Yemen," he said. "More children were paralysed in Yemen than anywhere in the world last year because of polio. And because of those war conditions, we were not able to get the vaccines into the country.

“The second biggest setback was in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the two countries where we could never eradicate the disease completely, but we're very hopeful.

"But it's extra tough now as money is being diverted to other humanitarian work such as rebuilding Africa."

He said partisan polarisation in the US had also affected the fight against diseases.

Mr Gates said the coronavirus pandemic was a case in point.

“The US didn't do a better job at managing the pandemic than many other countries," he said.

"There's is a lot of soul-searching that needs to be done. Why could the Centre for Disease Control not do a better job? This political polarisation in the US is certainly scary to me.

"It is unfortunate because when the world thinks about problems like pandemics or health research, historically the US has played a very strong leadership role. And yet here we have a little bit of chaotic leadership.”

He criticised former US president Donald Trump’s move to withdraw the US from the World Health Organisation in the middle of the pandemic last year.

He said the world needed to step up its strategy in surveillance to predict, detect and prevent future pandemics from potentially escalating. Vaccines, he said, should be a backup plan if surveillance fails to control pandemics.

Mr Gates said polio eradication campaigns started in 1988 and cases were brought down to a few hundred each year. The “last part is very difficult, but if we stop it, it will spread back, and you'll have several thousands of children paralysed. It would be tragic to give up,” he said.

Mr Gates said the world had learnt lessons from the Second World War and built institutions to prevent another conflict of that magnitude.

“We created many institutions, such as the United Nations and World Health Organisation but this is not happening now because of the Ukraine War and political polarisation in the US."

However, Mr Gates said the current pace of innovation in the field of medicine offered hope that the world could be a better place to live in the future.

Sheikh Mohamed's support for eradicating polio

He told the forum that Abu Dhabi had helped the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fight polio over the years.

Since 2011, President Sheikh Mohamed has committed more than $376 million to support global polio eradication efforts, as part of his commitment to end preventable diseases that affect the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.

In October, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pledged to invest $1.2 billion towards wiping out polio.

The donation will be managed by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a public-private partnership led by governments that aims to end the disease by 2026.

Updated: December 11, 2022, 5:45 PM