NAIROBI, Kenya – Bill Gates will have the attention of most of the world's health ministers on Tuesday, when he plans to share one main message: Get your vaccination rates up.
Gates is pushing to get countries to increase vaccination rates as an easy, low-cost way to protect their populations. He is scheduled to give the keynote address at the World Health Assembly in Geneva.
The health community wants to see the vaccination rate in every country rise to at least 90 percent, up from about 80 percent currently. A second part of that goal would have no one area in any country be below 80 percent. Gates said the goal will be difficult to meet, though new and cheaper vaccines will help countries improve their rates.
"Every percentage point you increase from where we are now to that goal you're talking about hundreds of children who don't die and thousands of children who don't get sick in a way that prevents their brain from developing fully," he said.
During Tuesday's speech, Gates will highlight strong results from a new meningitis vaccine in the West African nation of Burkina Faso, where last year there were 66 cases in the first four months. This year the country has seen only one case. A "meningitis belt" runs through Burkina Faso, Chad, Nigeria and Niger. But the new vaccine, which is being given to infants and adults, has shown strong results so far.
"It's a success story," Gates said. "For people who live in the meningitis belt the kind of fear and seeing the kids who are made deaf because of it they see it as a huge breakthrough. People immediately come and get this vaccine because they have such a fear of the disease."
Gates will also concentrate on polio, which he says could be eradicated in the next two to four years. Only four countries in the world remain polio-endemic, according to the World Health Organization, down from more than 125 in 1988. The four are Afghanistan, India, Pakistan and Nigeria, where polio cases dropped 95 percent last year.
"The long fight against polio proves just how powerful vaccine technology can be, but it also demonstrates that technology is only as effective as the leaders delivering it," Gates will say in his speech, according to prepared remarks.
"Now we're 99 percent of the way there, because of two things: A $0.13 vaccine so easy to administer that even I have done it many times, and the biggest, farthest-reaching delivery effort global health has ever seen."
Kenya has seen its vaccination coverage rate rise in recent decades from 46 percent to 78 percent, said Dr. Shahnaz Sharif, Kenya's director of public health and sanitation. He said Kenya's president has set the same goal that Gates hopes to see when it comes to vaccination coverage. But he also says it will be difficult.
"We've been told to get to around 95 percent," Sharif said. "You can easily get from 40 percent to 80 percent. That's easy. But to get from 80 to 95 percent is the most difficult part."
Most of Gates' vaccine work is aimed at underdeveloped countries, but measles can strike anywhere that the vaccination rates aren't high enough, as recent outbreaks in the U.S. and Europe have shown. People in richer countries, Gates said, are faced with rumors about vaccines' safety, despite the fact they have been tested and are safe.
"Fortunately outbreaks in rich countries aren't large, only in the hundreds, but still that's tragic because it comes from misinformation, where people are scared about vaccines with things like the claim that there was some autism effect even though that's been completely discredited," Gates said.