Microsoft chairman and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates stressed the importance of funding in stopping pandemics at an early stage during challenging times when budgets are getting tighter.
In a conference call last week announcing a new report on the state of global health and development, he said more countries should follow the example of the UAE, Norway and Sweden in donating over 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income to foreign aid if millions of disease-related deaths are to be prevented.
Mr Gates also said shifting priorities, instability and potential budget cuts had the potential to jeopardise progress.
“If we had a 10 per cent cut in global donor funding for HIV treatment, we would have five million more HIV-related deaths by 2030,” Mr Gates said. “That’s to bring it in real focus that it absolutely matters what happens here.”
He said aids was an iconic example because the world stepped up which cut aids-related deaths in half since 2005. “The commitment to get drugs cheaper and get them out to everybody has made a difference,” he said.
“We see countries that are considering possible funding cuts so we’re talking about a big setback especially because we have this huge increase in the number of people in the aids group that’s at risk which is 16 to 24 years old. We’re saying that progress is not inevitable - it is possible - there are heroes, innovations and exemplars but the trend is that countries do not think about these global problems and you get cuts in terms of pandemics.”
The report, Goalkeepers: The Stories behind the Data, by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation measures the progress of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in reducing extreme poverty and disease.
It analyses 18 health and poverty indicators to gauge how far the world has come and what is at stake. It also highlights successes and innovations that are saving lives around the world, while also acknowledging lessons learned and how much work remains to be done.
“What we’re trying to do here is document the incredible progress on poverty and different disease areas and trying to look forward and see what the possibilities to continue that progress are or if the right things aren’t done, go backwards,” he said.
“Many people aren’t aware of the progress - that’s one of our goals - and to help them understand what elements go into whether we'll make faster progress or not.”
The UN has a target for all donor countries to give at least 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in foreign aid. Mr Gates mentioned countries such as the UAE, Sweden and Norway which go above that figure.
“We’re hoping all developed countries will achieve that. A big breakthrough on aid quality was that historically it was more about relationships than it was about humanitarian impact."
Of the more than 750 million people in the world facing extreme poverty - living on less than US$1.90 a day - approximately 300 million are living in the Muslim world.
Mr Gates spoke of the vital work performed by the UAE, with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed, Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi and Deputy Supreme Commander of the UAE Armed Forces, personally contributing US$120 million in 2013 towards the fight against the eradication of polio. He donated another US$30 million in June this year and a total of US$167 million so far.
“The UAE’s interesting because they’ve been quite generous on a number of things for many years but it’s in the last few years in terms of how they organise and report about it that people were able to see that overall picture added up and say that is quite a generous level,” Mr Gates said.
“The UAE did excellent work in the top parts of Pakistan, not just in resources, but in the execution on the ground by giving vaccines to all children and this will make a difference in whether we achieve our eradication goals or not.
"Other Middle Eastern countries don’t document their aid levels as well as the UAE so we hope the generosity and the partnership in that transparency gets adopted more widely.”
He said generosity was crucial.
“We have drug resistance come along in some HIV cases so even the tools we have today will become less effective,” he said. “So we have to keep investing in innovation.”
But progress has been achieved with polio cases dropping from 350,000 in 1988 to 74 last year.
Extreme poverty and child deaths were also cut in half and HIV and maternal deaths were reduced by almost half. “Innovation is why the world is so much better today than it was 200 years ago,” Mr Gates said.
“Innovation has made a huge difference and artificial intelligence has been applied for drug discovery, to find out how to better educate and to find patterns in data. It can be a very positive thing because disease eradication has such a huge and powerful benefit.”
He said progress comes where you have innovation and new tools. “We want to take these efforts, metrics and data that we think [are] the best to making progress and get that out there to everyone,” he added.
"It's like the report card for the world in terms of doing something that really is of universal value and of great importance."
Health experts agreed.
“Most of these diseases are preventable because vaccines are available,” said Dr Mansour Al Zarouni, infectious control expert at the Ministry of Health and Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah.
“What is basically required is funding for vaccines and reaching populations. What is allowing these diseases to come back is not being able to reach the population due to wars or countries’ internal affairs.”
He said the issue was not so much in the cost of vaccines rather in reaching the needy due to conflicts in highly populated areas, namely Asian and African countries.
“Innovation is great because now more and more people work towards recombinant vaccines which are critical because they are genetically engineered to give protection against multiple diseases in one vaccine,” Dr Al Zarouni said.
“And due to this [inability] to reach populations, you don’t have the chance to go for different vaccinations so if they’re combined in one for multiple purposes, that will be the right way. What is required from innovation, technology and money is to be directed towards recombinant vaccines.”