Bill Gates urges Afghanistan and Pakistan to "get to zero" in polio fight

FILE PHOTO: A boy receives polio vaccine drops, during an anti-polio campaign, in a low-income neighbourhood in Karachi, Pakistan April 9, 2018. (Reuters)
Updated 25 March 2019
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Bill Gates urges Afghanistan and Pakistan to "get to zero" in polio fight

  • Gates was optimistic about the global plan to eradicate polio virus
  • There were 33 cases of polio in 2018 and six so far in 2019 worldwide

LONDON: Local Afghan Taliban leaders are hindering global efforts to end polio, but Afghanistan and Pakistan must continue their fight to "get to zero" cases, the philanthropist Bill Gates said on Monday.
In a telephone interview with Reuters, Gates was optimistic about the global plan to eradicate the paralysing viral disease, but said Afghanistan's conflict and power struggles hamper progress.

"The big issue there is always with the Taliban," said Gates, whose multi-billion dollar philanthropic Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of the biggest funders of the polio eradication campaign.

Polio is a virus that spreads in areas with poor sanitation. It attacks the nervous system and can cause irreversible paralysis within hours of infection. Children under five are the most vulnerable, but polio can be prevented with vaccination.

Success in reducing case numbers worldwide has been largely due to intense national and regional immunisation campaigns in babies and children.

Latest Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) figures show that worldwide, there were 33 cases of polio in 2018 and six so far in 2019 - 16 of them in Pakistan and 23 in Afghanistan. These two, plus Nigeria, are the last remaining countries where the disease is endemic.

The GPEI, which includes the WHO, the Gates Foundation, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) and others, began its push to wipe out polio in 1988, when the disease was endemic in 125 countries and was paralysing almost 1,000 children a day worldwide.

Since then, there has been at least a 99 percent reduction in cases. But eradicating the disease - something that has only ever been achieved with one other human disease, smallpox - is proving a long and challenging task.

"We've got to get Afghanistan and Pakistan to zero," Gates said. "We need government donors to stay committed."

Gates, a billionaire who co-founded of Microsoft, said the global polio program is making progress in Pakistan and has a good relationship with Prime Minister Imran Khan, who has prioritised the polio fight.
The "only potential negative" in the region is instability in Afghanistan, Gates said, where Taliban leaders appear to have no single policy but "decide what they will and what they won't allow" regarding polio vaccinations.

"That's what we don't have predictability or control over," he said. "Sometimes they stop the campaigns from taking place. But the ideal is when they allow house-to-house (vaccine) delivery."
Gates pointed to India, which 12 years ago was responsible for 70 percent of all polio cases and this week marks five years since it last recorded a case.

Gates had previously described the challenge of wiping out polio in India, which has a population of 1.3 billion people and some areas of very poor sanitation, as "mind boggling". Success there, he said, shows polio can eventually be ended worldwide.


Pakistan urges Taliban, US to refrain from ‘active hostility’ amid peace talks

Updated 53 min 14 sec ago
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Pakistan urges Taliban, US to refrain from ‘active hostility’ amid peace talks

  • Foreign office says intra-Afghan dialogue holds key to Afghan peace process
  • Clarifies Pakistan did not participate in recent rounds of talks in Abu Dhabi and Doha

ISLAMABAD: The Foreign Office has said Pakistan has been playing the role of a facilitator in peace talks between the Afghan Taliban and US officials and urged them both to refrain from hostile engagements.

On Friday, Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special representative for Afghan reconciliation, expressed disappointment after the collapse of a planned meeting between the Taliban and a group of Afghan politicians in Qatar that exposed the deep divisions blocking efforts to end the 17-year-long war.

The Doha meeting was intended to prepare the ground for possible future talks by building familiarity among Taliban officials and representatives of the Afghan state created after the U.S.-led campaign that toppled the Taliban government in 2001. A similar encounter was held in Moscow in February.

Up until now the Taliban have refused to hold direct talks with the Afghan government which it considers to be a foreign-appointed puppet regime.

“Pakistan is doing everything in its capacity to facilitate the peace process, and would keep urging both sides to restrain from active hostility,” foreign office spokesman Dr Mohammad Faisal said at a weekly press briefing on Thursday.

In response to a question by Arab News about the latest round of talks, referred to as the Doha Process, Faisal said: “Let me clarify that there is no such thing as the Doha Process. The last two rounds of talks between the US and Taliban were held in Doha but the earlier round was held in Abu Dhabi. Pakistan has not attended talks in Doha.”

“We facilitated the talks between the US and Taliban in Abu Dhabi and Doha,” Faisal added. “Pakistan will continue to play its role in this regard as a shared responsibility.”

A 250-strong delegation of Afghan politicians and civil society figures had been due to meet Taliban officials in Doha on the weekend. But the event was abruptly canceled amid arguments over the size and status of the group, which included some government officials attending in a personal capacity.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s office has blamed Qatari authorities for the cancellation of the talks, saying they had authorized a list of participants that differed from the one proposed by Kabul, “which meant disrespect for the national will of the Afghans”.

The Taliban derided the agreed list of 250 participants as a “wedding party”. Some senior opposition figures who had been included refused to attend. The Taliban also objected to Ghani’s comments to a meeting of delegates that they would be representing the Afghan nation and the Afghan government, a statement that went against the insurgents’ refusal to deal with the Kabul administration.

The Taliban said holding a dialogue with the “powerless and crumbling Kabul administration is a waste of time” as their aim was to focus on the complete withdrawal of foreign forces from Afghanistan.