Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization

Immunizing the Developing World

  • Medicine & Health
  • 1999

Bill Gates has described how his perspective changed when he read a 1996 New York Times story about how hundreds of thousands of children in the developing world die every year from dehydration after they become infected with something called rotavirus. “That can’t be right,” Gates thought. “I read the news all the time. I read about plane crashes and freak accidents. Where is the news about these half-million kids dying?” At that time, Gates was “exclusively focused” on running his company, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation was just getting launched. Very soon, though, the “number-one global health priority” of the organization was delivering vaccines to poor children throughout the world. And by 1998, Gates had retired from Microsoft to pour himself into his philanthropy full-time.

Then in 1999 Bill and Melinda Gates hosted a dinner at their home for experts and asked how momentum could be regained in vaccinating children overseas. By the end of the year the Gates Foundation had put $750 million on the table to launch a new Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization, now known as GAVI. The foundation subsequently made additional huge grants to expand the vaccine alliance, bringing the total Gates commitment to this cause to $2.5 billion.

With this burst of energy and funding, around three quarters of a billion children have been immunized against basic diseases since 2000, averting perhaps as many as 10 million deaths over a 15-year period. Working through the alliance and on its own, the Gates Foundation has been the prime driver in creating new vaccines—like ones for rotavirus, approved for widespread use in 2009, and pneumonia. In 2015 Gates announced a $50 million grant to Stanford University to set up a center to study how the immune system can be harnessed to develop future vaccines. The foundation has also greatly expanded access in poor countries to underutilized existing vaccines like those against hepatitis B, influenza type B, measles, and the five diseases blocked by the so-called pentavalent vaccine.