(Jan. 29) -- In the largest donation yet by his private charitable foundation, Bill Gates has announced he'll donate $10 billion for the development of new vaccines and their distribution in developing countries.
"We must make this the decade of vaccines," Gates said in a statement. "Vaccines already save and improve millions of lives in developing countries. Innovation will make it possible to save more children than ever before."
Gates and his wife, Melinda, called upon businesses and international governments to add to the contribution, which they estimate could save the lives of 7.6 million children under the age of 5 by 2019. Among the vaccines they hope to develop and distribute are those for malaria and tuberculosis, ailments that have been all but eradicated in the U.S. but still plague poorer nations.
The World Health Organization is enthusiastically behind the initiative, with Margaret Chan, head of the WHO, calling it "unprecedented."
Global health is one of the priorities of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, but this new donation eclipses its average health-related donations of years past -- about $800 million annually, which approaches the total yearly budget for the United Nations' WHO.
The $10 billion donation is being lauded by the international community, but a 2007 investigation by the Los Angeles Times concluded that the Gates' international medical aid was actually putting children at risk. At the time, efforts to fight AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria led to highly specialized medical training and a subsequent shortage of basic-care doctors. In turn, more children died of common ailments like sepsis and diarrhea.
The disproportionate focus on certain illnesses has also meant that resources were diverted away from basic needs, like clean water and food, which, ironically, are necessary for the proper digestion of AIDS medications provided by the foundation's dollars.
And while there's no doubt that more money, and more attention, are fundamentally important in saving the lives of vulnerable children, health experts have cautioned against over-celebrating large-scale donations like this one.
Dr. Peter Poore, a pediatrician who works as a consultant to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization (GAVI), one of the overseas health operatives that's received Gates money in the past, warned that overstating the impact of donor programs can actually stall foreign health care. "They can also do dangerous things," he told the Times. "They can be very disruptive to health systems -- the very things they claim they are trying to improve."
No matter how many vaccines the foundation pays for, its aid isn't sustainable unless it also pays to train foreign doctors and equip a nation's hospitals and medical centers. Dr. Tadataka Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation's global health program, has said that its money can only be "a catalyst" and urged African governments to fill the gaps. But with even doctors in Africa succumbing to AIDS, the narrow focus of the Gates Foundation might only compound the problem.
With an endowment exceeding $35 billion, there's no doubt that Gates and his family will be in the business of donations for years to come. Surely, those billions will save lives. But with a philanthropist who advocates "recognition as an added incentive" for generosity, here's hoping that countries on the receiving end can - somehow - do what's needed behind the scenes to take that money and make sustainable changes.