Hoping to nip Africa's biggest polio outbreak in the bud, the World Health Organization (WHO) today announced that it has signed up its first corporate partner in a decades-long effort to eradicate the disease. The diamond-mining company De Beers will donate $2.7 million over the next 2 years to immunize children in war-torn Angola.
Banished from most Western nations decades ago, polio is still ravaging several developing countries, including India, Pakistan, Nigeria, and Angola. In 1988, WHO began an effort to purge the world of polio; since then, incidence has fallen by 80% to 6000 cases a year. The organization hopes to stop transmission of the virus by the end of next year and monitor afflicted regions for another 3 years, at a total cost of $1.25 billion. But fundraising hasn't matched expectations: The program is about $500 million short.
"We're tremendously excited about this support from De Beers," says WHO's Bruce Aylward, coordinator of the polio initiative. "There are no strings attached, and it can be used for the most difficult aspects of funding in Angola," such as training volunteers and transporting vaccines. He says that many countries are reluctant to give aid to Angola, a country beset by civil war. Recent fighting effectively halted vaccination efforts; this spring 1000 children became paralyzed after catching the polio virus, says Aylward. De Beers's contribution will cover the cost of vaccinating about 80% of the 3.3 million Angolan children who must be immunized in the next 2 years. The program may be difficult to get under way, Aylward concedes, as the conflict between rebels and the government is escalating.
De Beers has a financial stake in Angola, which produces some 15% of the world's diamonds: Last year, the company discovered four new sites of diamond-bearing rock in the northeastern part of the country. De Beers, which owns $4.8 billion worth of diamonds, is also building a new diamond-sorting facility in Angola.