Gates CEO says polio's return to Nigeria is her 'biggest disappointment'

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Photo by: Marla Aufmuth / TED / CC BY-NC

Sue Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said Tuesday that her “biggest disappointment” since joining the foundation in 2014 was witnessing the re-emergence of polio in Nigeria after it had previously been thought to be eradicated from the African continent.

Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., Desmond-Hellmann reflected on what the world’s largest foundation learned from that disappointment — and she offered some words of global health advice for incoming U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

“The world had happily gone two years polio-free in the entire continent of Africa ... and when these two cases were reported in Nigeria it was a big setback,” Desmond-Hellmann said.

In August, the government of Nigeria reported that two children had been paralyzed by polio, after more than two years without a reported case of wild poliovirus in the country. That prompted a renewed emergency outbreak response in a country that recently accounted for more than half of the world’s polio cases, but which the World Health Organization declared “polio-free” in 2015.

So far in 2016, 33 cases of wild poliovirus have been reported, most of them in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Nigeria’s recent outbreak “was a setback because the surveillance had let us down, and because we recognized and were reminded that where Boko Haram is, where there’s unrest in Nigeria and where the vaccinators can’t reach remains a threat to eradicating polio and ending that terrible disease for the world,” Desmond-Hellmann said.

The experience taught the foundation to be more skeptical of apparent success, according to its CEO.

“I think we push ourselves to ask more, when we think we have good news, is it really good news or is it ignorance in places where we just couldn’t get the surveillance we needed?”

The unexpected outbreak of another disease — the Ebola virus — also offered some lessons Desmond-Hellmann hopes the incoming Trump administration will consider. More than 11,000 people in six countries died from Ebola during the outbreak in 2014 and 2015.

“My number one thing that I would want president-elect Trump to remember is that a health crisis anywhere is a health crisis everywhere,” the Gates CEO said.

“One of the major lessons learned from Ebola was something that even a medical student had to dust off the book and go back and remember what Ebola was — less than 3,000 cases on Earth between 1976 and 2014 — could be a potential global health crisis,” she added.

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About the author

  • Michael Igoe

    Michael Igoe is a Senior Reporter with Devex, based in Washington, D.C. He covers U.S. foreign aid, global health, climate change, and development finance. Prior to joining Devex, Michael researched water management and climate change adaptation in post-Soviet Central Asia, where he also wrote for EurasiaNet. Michael earned his bachelor's degree from Bowdoin College, where he majored in Russian, and his master’s degree from the University of Montana, where he studied international conservation and development.