Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates said on February 17 during a visit to Pakistan that polio eradication could be possible in the coming years.
Gates told reporters that the steps taken this year in Pakistan, one of the last two countries in the world where the virus is endemic, “will probably set us up to finish polio eradication."
Speaking in Islamabad, he said the effort to eliminate polio is "not done” but is “certainly in by far the best situation we've ever been in."
The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is part of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI), a major project between governments and international organizations. The foundation has been financing Pakistan's efforts to rid the country of the polio virus, and Gates was invited to visit the country by Prime Minister Imran Khan.
Pakistan and Afghanistan are the two countries in the world where the contagion continues to circulate.
While Gates said he was impressed by Pakistan's efforts, he acknowledged that polio had spread less in Pakistan than anticipated because people were moving around less during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As for Afghanistan, he said that more vaccination against polio was taking place there now compared to recent years and noted that the two neighboring countries' polio eradication efforts were interlinked.
But the outcome is uncertain, particularly given the situation in Afghanistan, where the Taliban took control in August.
"Afghanistan is a little bit of a question mark because that's a more complex situation," he said, but he noted vaccination rates had gone up this year after dropping off since 2018, though they still need to be higher.
Faisal Sultan, Pakistan's special assistant to the prime minister on health, said Pakistan engages with the Taliban-led government’s health authorities to ensure that a synchronized campaign for eradication continues.
Pakistan last year reported only a single case of polio, which can cause partial paralysis in children. The case was in its southwestern Balochistan Province. Four wild polio cases were reported in Afghanistan in 2021 and one this year, according to GPEI.
During Gates’s visit, Pakistan awarded the billionaire philanthropist the prestigious Hilal-e-Pakistan award, its second-highest civilian honor, in recognition of his work.
Cabinet minister Faisal Javed Khan congratulated Gates for the award on Twitter, calling it “a well-deserved honor" for his “valuable, exceptional and extraordinary services fighting poverty, disease, and inequality around the world.”
Gates also met with Khan, who thanked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its continued partnership with Pakistan to eradicate polio.
The foundation issued a statement quoting Khan as saying that polio eradication is a “top priority” for the government and agreeing with Gates that it could be achieved in a few years.