Gates Foundation Gives $10M for Polio

The United Nations (search) said Thursday that it has received grants of $10 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (search) to help develop and introduce a more effective new vaccine for polio (search).

Developing a new polio vaccine is a key part of the World Health Organization (search) strategy to eradicate the crippling disease by the end of 2005.

"Epidemiologists believe the new vaccine could help to bring a swift end to polio through mass immunization campaigns," WHO and the U.N. children's agency said in a joint statement.

The Gates Foundation funds will help WHO and UNICEF (search) to develop, license and introduce the new vaccine, which will be used initially in Egypt, by May 2005. WHO has previously said a shortage of funds was hindering efforts to eradicate polio.

The new vaccine will be more effective against the only strain of polio which is currently present in Egypt, making the country an ideal place to introduce it, WHO spokeswoman Sona Bari said.

It is intended for use in mass immunization campaigns where the other variants of the disease have been eliminated.

The existing vaccine immunizes against all strains of the disease, but is less effective against that particular variant, Bari explained.

The number of polio cases worldwide rose last year by almost one-third, to 1,185 cases, despite a renewed immunization campaign in Nigeria after the end of a vaccine boycott, according to WHO.

Most of the cases were in Africa — largely in Nigeria, the continent's most populous nation.

A vaccine boycott there spawned a resurgence of the disease across the continent, infecting children in formerly polio-free countries.

Extremist Muslim clerics had led the boycott, claiming the polio vaccine was part of a U.S.-led plot to render Nigeria's Muslims infertile or infect them with AIDS.

Vaccination programs restarted in Nigeria in July 2004 and WHO also boosted immunization across Africa.

Polio is a waterborne disease that usually infects young children, attacking the nervous system and causing paralysis, muscular atrophy, deformation and sometimes death.

If WHO succeeds in its objective, polio will be only the second disease ever wiped out by humans, after smallpox, the agency said.

"This will help support the national efforts to get rid of the virus once and for all," said Egypt's Health Minister Awad Tag El-Din.

The new vaccine will be produced and licensed under the oversight of the drugs regulatory agencies of France and Egypt, WHO said. The Egyptian government will train health workers to use the vaccine.

WHO will be responsible for overall coordination of the project and UNICEF will procure the vaccine and deliver it to the Egyptian government.