Bill Gates and Aziz Memon Talk about Fighting Polio in Pakistan
By Ras H. Siddiqui
Sacramento, CA: Aziz Memon is a Pakistani who makes things move positively in our country of origin. If one ventured here into even briefly mentioning all of his credentials in the world of business, philanthropy or fighting for causes, it would exceed the upper word length limit of our publication guidelines. So for the purpose of this article we will limit his introduction to just that of a Rotarian and within that role as the Chairman, Pakistan National Polio Plus Committee of Rotary International.
Aziz was recently in Seattle where he had the opportunity to meet the wealthiest man in the world, Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates whose Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is currently amongst the most influential on our planet focusing on humanitarian causes including the fight against disease. And one of these which Bill recently talked about on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon recently was a quest to eradicate polio, a disease which strangely still lingers on in three countries, Afghanistan, Nigeria and Pakistan even though a cure is readily available.
Aziz also traveled through San Francisco on this trip where he met Dr Larry Brilliant of the Skoll Global Threat Fund along with Ms Carol Pandak, Director Rotary International for Polio Project, on January 20th. He also attended a dinner meeting with a small group of local Pakistanis arranged by Erfan Ibrahim in San Francisco to which this writer (RS) was invited. Since I could not attend, the decision was taken to interview Aziz Memon (AM) via email. He obliged us and that interview is presented below:
RS: Before we get to the topic at hand, what was it like meeting Microsoft Co-Founder Bill Gates on January 12 th and how do you see his role in global polio eradication?
AM : It was a privilege meeting Bill Gates in Seattle, Washington. He is a keen supporter and maintains an avid interest in health, poverty, disease and hunger. The Rotary Foundation has contributed more than $1.3 billion to fight polio. Through 2018, the BMGF will match two-to-one every dollar Rotary commits to polio eradication (up to $35 million a year). The Independent Monitoring Board (IMB) that works on behalf of international donor agencies and issues reports regarding the performance of countries in combating the poliovirus after every six months recommended that Pakistan establish an Emergency Operation Centre (EOC) for Polio in 2014. The BMGF has provided funding for an EOC in all four provinces of Pakistan to accommodate representatives from BMGF, WHO, UNICEF and Rotary International. The high risk unit will have representative officers of the Pakistan Army and the United Arab Emirates Pakistan Assistance Program (UAE-PAP) as well to monitor the campaigns. The EOC is the Rapid Response Unit to handle emergencies.
RS: Was this meeting with Mr Gates a part of an old and continuing relationship with his foundation or is it something new due to the reemergence of polio cases on a much larger scale in Pakistan?
AM : Bill Gate’s relationship with Rotary is an old and continuing one. In 2007, the Gates Foundation gave The Rotary Foundation a $100 million challenge grant for polio eradication, and in 2009 increased it to $355 million. Rotary agreed to raise $200 million in matching funds by 30 June 2012, but Rotarians in fact raised $228.7 million toward the challenge. The Gates Foundation first made its donation to the United Nations Fund toward polio eradication in the Indian Sub-Continent and Sub Saharan Africa in 1999 contributing $50 million, for a period of seven years.
RS: What is the main difficulty that is faced on the ground in Pakistan today in the fight against a disease that the world once thought was almost eradicated?
AM : Pakistan is faced with myriad challenges in the war against polio. While Pakistan did exceedingly well in 2012, with only 58 cases and 93 in 2013, the year 2014 was the worst in more than a decade, where the count for polio stood at 303 (Type-1) cases. Faced with an on-going war on terror, the children of North Waziristan in the Federally Administered Tribal Area (FATA) have suffered badly due to no vaccination for any vaccine preventable diseases for almost three years when a self-imposed ban was implemented by the militant chief Hafiz Gul Bahadur. It is only after the Pakistan Army launched the operation Zarb-e Azb, to clear militants from FATA did the polio teams gain access to over 300,000 children badly deprived of vaccines and health care facilities. Children are missed: when in transit; not administered polio drops due to misconceptions on polio virus or refuse polio vaccine on account of religious beliefs. Other challenges are inaccessibility to remote areas and security compromised regions making it difficult for teams to take part in the door to door campaign.
RS: How has the Rotary Club which you are a part of been able to assist in the polio eradication campaign there?
AM: Rotary has 1.2 million members in more than 34,000 Rotary Clubs in over 200 countries and geographical areas. Their work improves lives at both local and international levels. In Pakistan, Rotary’s National Polio Plus Committee (PNPPC) has several projects on the ground to combat polio. The Permanent Transit Posts (PTPs) target transient population and IDPs; Permanent Immunization Centers (PIC) improve routine immunization, Resource Centers connect with the surrounding population building confidence and creating advocacy and Health Camps held by Rotary Clubs in needy and impoverished areas. The PNPPC also conducts workshops for Ulemas or religious leaders and creates awareness campaigns in schools, colleges, health centers and clinics. Polio mobilization items are distributed widely to create awareness. The Speaking Book ‘A Story of Health’ educates communities with low literacy. And a cell phone project in Sindh, Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa tabulates data via cell phones provided to Lady Health Workers to improve routine immunization in new born and infants..
RS: Do we have some figures on the number of people already crippled by this disease in Pakistan?
AM: In 2014 the number of people crippled in Pakistan is 303, which contribute to almost 90% of the cases in polio endemic countries. Newborn children are most vulnerable, and Pakistan must improve routine immunization to build immunity against the polio virus..
RS: We had heard that you had teamed up with cricket star Shahid Afridi to spread the word about the need to get preventive treatment. Who else in Pakistan has been really supportive of your effort?
AM: Besides Shahid Afridi, Ms Aseefa Bhutto Zardari, Maulana Sattar Edhi and the most recent supporter is Salman Ahmed (Junoon fame) all have joined in support of the cause which is polio-eradication.
RS: Thank You.
To conclude here, decades after the Salk polio vaccine was introduced from America to the world, it is highly regrettable that we still hear about this disease crippling children. But if Bill Gates and Aziz Memon and many more continue with their efforts, we may not hear about polio much longer, at least in Pakistan.