AMERICAN billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates has pledged $10bn (€7.2bn) to advance vaccination work worldwide. His decision was reached as he pored over a 329-page compendium of World Bank data on development and disease in the early 1990s.
As he pondered what to do with the extraordinary wealth built from his software empire, the report provided a Damascene moment. The calculations of the burden of infections such as rotavirus and pneumococcal pneumonia -- diseases about which Mr Gates readily admitted to knowing next to nothing -- were laid out in graphs and charts that had the billionaire captivated. Work on vaccination, he decided, should be his bequest to the world.
Fifteen years later, the Gates' mission to improve immunisation has entered a new dimension -- one that a man not known for hyperbole describes as a drive for "the decade of the vaccine".
It comes with a $10bn commitment over the next 10 years -- outstripping even his previous donations.
He said it was impossible to read the statistics, see the solutions and not want to act, given the resources at his disposal.
"I am always impatient," he said of his desire to implement change in global health. Those around him, responding to his appetite for data on vaccine uptake and delivery on investments, know this only too well.
He spoke of the progress made, his support for attempts to pin down an AIDS vaccine, and details of deaths brought on by rotavirus -- a severe form of diarrhoea -- and pneumococcal disease that causes pneumonia, blood poisoning, and a form of meningitis.
"There are 135 million children born every year, and the vast majority are in these poorer countries where today they are not getting the full range of vaccines," he said. "Kids in rich countries get vaccines against pneumococcus . . . they get rotavirus. Those two alone are responsible for 10pc of all childhood deaths. We just need to get them out there."
His colossal commitment, announced yesterday at a press conference at the World Economic Forum in Davos, comes with a headline-grabbing goal: the saving of 8.7 million lives. He also suggests that the "lives saved" calculation, which takes into account the expected introduction of a partially effective malaria vaccine from 2014, is "fairly conservative".
He is not just gambling on groundbreaking discoveries. "On the research side, it's a long timeframe. But on the delivery side, you can save lives for as little as $2,000 (€1,442) per life saved," he said.
The immediate returns on funding vaccine delivery make his pitch less easy for governments to ignore. "I applaud the fact that the rich-world governments have not cut back -- and I call out Italy as an exception to that -- but the other governments, even in these tough years, have continued to increase global health aid.
"Our mix tends to be heavier on discovery than delivery, where the governments tend to be heavier on the delivery. If something failed, we don't lose any votes," he said.
"Vaccines are a miracle. With just a few doses they can prevent deadly diseases for a lifetime," said Melinda Gates yesterday. "We've made vaccines our priority because we've seen first-hand their incredible impact on children's lives." (© The Times, London)