Polio Reappears in Africa Despite Gates Foundation's Massive Eradication Funding

In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF announced $10 million in funding from the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation to develop a new polio vaccine to end poliovirus by the end of the year.

Following that, the Gates Foundation among others would massively fund polio eradication heavily focusing on Africa through the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) along with the WHO, Rotary International, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), and UNICEF.

From 2008 on, the Gates Foundation would contribute $300 million a year on average alongside a coalition of countries, philanthropies, loans from the World Bank, and individual donors like Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim.

The Gates Foundation was by far the largest funder of polio eradication over that time, more so than other philanthropies or countries, representing almost $18 billion in total since 2008. They represented around one quarter of total contributions, and they targeted a 6-year plan to completely eliminate the disease, in the same way smallpox has been eliminated, by 2018.

Yet, data from the WHO shows that once the hundreds of millions in funding for the GPEI came in, rates of vaccination have barely increased and sometimes declined. Since 2017, incidents of polio have actually gone up.

Prior to 2008, cases had been declining for years with increased vaccinations and little money spent. The GPEI subsisted largely on funding from countries like the U.S. and the U.K. with total contributions below $200 million a year. Following the Gates Foundation lead, contributions have gone from $600 million a year to almost $1.4 billion a year.

For the most part, polio had already disappeared from the continent by 2009 when the influx of funds came in. While over a thousand cases are listed in Africa in 2006, four years later the WHO lists only 48. The disease once crippled hundreds of thousands of children a year across the globe, but initiatives to distribute vaccines has brought that down by 99 percent. As vaccines came in, prevalence declined (Pearson correlation: -.85).

Focus on Nigeria

Nigeria is one of three countries that the Gates Foundation has specifically targeted for polio eradication, along with Afghanistan and Pakistan. It had some of the highest incidences of infection in Africa, next to Angola and Congo. Although, like other countries, prevalence of poliovirus already dropped substantially by 2009, before the Gates Foundation funding.

In Nigeria, the vaccination rate over the term of the Gates funding has actually declined—going from 69 percent in 2010 to 57 percent in 2019. In 2020, the Gates Foundation trumpeted the elimination of wild poliovirus in Nigeria, despite WHO listing 52 cases in the prior two years.

According to GPEI annual report, different types of wild poliovirus has been certified to be eliminated while others, like cVDPD2, still linger. The GPEI previously announced in a 2015 annual report that Nigeria was polio-free. The virus has been known to reappear a few years after a period of no infections, as it did in Angola in 2019.

Prior Success

India was previously considered the epicenter of polio, and cases there have since completely disappeared. But the elimination of polio from India was largely self-funded according to the WHO, and it occurred before Gates Foundation funding for eradication.

For certain years, they could almost claim a complete success. There were five noted incidents of polio globally in 2016. But in other years, like 2018, there were more cases than almost a decade earlier.

Polio is considered a completely curable disease, and vaccinations have helped eliminate the disease from many countries like the U.S. But with the billions in funding, vaccine coverage in Africa only went from 79 to 82 percent—3 percent—over a decade. Prior to the Gates Foundation funding, vaccine coverage went up 20 percent in a decade.

The Gates Foundation has tried to address criticism of the eradication attempt on their site with stories such as “Has the fight against polio been worth it?”, insisting that the funding led to an “intensification of immunization campaigns and surveillance.”