Public Service Award
Bill Gates and Melinda Gates
For leading a historic transformation in the way we view the globe's most pressing health concerns and improving the lives of millions of the world's most vulnerable.
Grand things come to mind when musing about the great 20th century philanthropists. Andrew Carnegie is famous for his libraries, educational institutions, and music hall. The Rockefellers are celebrated for revitalizing New York City, founding a University, building a Center, and donating land for the United Nations headquarters. Andrew Mellon is renowned for establishing the National Gallery of Art.
In the 21st century and beyond, Bill and Melinda Gates will be legendary for transforming the quality of life for millions of Earth's neediest citizens. The 2013 Lasker~Bloomberg Public Service Award honors these two individuals, who have catalyzed immense interest in and improvements to public health around the world. Through inspired leadership and generous philanthropy, the Gateses have spurred initiatives and research that tackle some of the planet's toughest health problems. Their work has popularized and intensified concern about previously neglected areas. Guided by the belief that all people deserve a chance to live a healthy, productive life, these visionaries have put global health on the map.
Responding to inequity's siren
In 1997, Bill and Melinda Gates saw a pie chart in a newspaper that displayed the major causes of deaths among children worldwide. A large slicerepresenting 500,000 youngsterssaid "rotavirus."
The Gateses had never heard of rotavirus.
This infectious agent killed few people in the United States and other industrialized nations. Even in developing countries, it didn't have to kill. Remote clinics could easily save lives if their shelves held oral rehydration salts. This simple intervention replaces fluids lost from the massive diarrhea that the microbe triggers.
The realization that hundreds of thousands of children each year were succumbing to a treatable disease crystallized the Gateses' goal for their subsequent philanthropic activities. Clearly, rotavirus was not a priority for governments and others charged with safeguarding populations. Yet the couple believedand believesthat all lives have equal value.
This new lens focused their future work. Mindful that huge sums alone cannot cure the world's ills, they often magnify their impact by teaming up with agencies that hold diverse expertise and resources. For example, in 1999, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provided the seed money to launch the GAVI Alliance, an organization that aims to increase access to immunization in poor countries. The GAVI partnership includes UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the World Bank, as well as pharmaceutical companies and governments of developing and developed nations. GAVI has supported the immunization of hundreds of million of children against some of the biggest killers, including rotavirus (for which a vaccine now exists) and a pneumonia-causing bacterium. In so doing, the Alliance is closing the 1015-year gap between a new vaccine's arrival in high- and low-income countries. In its fight against lethal germs, the Gates Foundation cultivated another collaborative project that not only generated a low-cost way to protect inhabitants of sub-Saharan Africa from epidemic meningitis, but also sculpted a novel model for developing and delivering vaccines at a fraction of the usual cost.
One of Bill Gates's current priorities is the eradication of polio, a scourge that the industrialized world has relegated to a paralyzing disease of the past. The vaccine has almost wiped it from the globe, but in three countriesAfghanistan, Pakistan, and Nigeriait still strikes today. Unlike smallpox, whose telltale rash identifies infectious cases, polio frequently simmers quietly. As a result, the classic strategy for eliminating a contagious diseasewhich relies on quick identification of new casesisn't feasible. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI) faces a colossal challenge as it tries to uproot the polio microbe's last strongholds. In its substantial support for GPEI, the Gates Foundation is stimulating technology that targets specific problemsfor example, a satellite imagery system that allows the GPEI to create high-resolution maps that are crucial for locating as-yet unimmunized populations.
Bill Gates with community-level mobilizers for the polio eradication program at Guleria village, Khagaria District, Bihar, India in May 2010. Photo courtesy of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The Gates Foundation attacks health-related disparities that reach beyond those associated with infectious disease. Melinda Gates has recently been championing the importance of easily available family-planning information and services. Putting contraceptives within reach reduces maternal and newborn deaths, upgrades nutritional status, increases school attendance, and boosts prosperity for families and nations. The Foundation also fosters sustainable improvements in agricultural productivity, expands access to crucial nutrients, and promotes novel schemes for safe disposal of human waste. In 2012, it announced the first-round results of its "Reinvent the Toilet Challenge;" the winning prototype was a solar-powered toilet that generates electricity.
Melinda Gates in the maternity waiting room at Dowa District Hospital in Dowa, Malawi in January 2010. Photo courtesy of Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
The Gateses have repeatedly prompted fresh thinking among researchers. Their iconic "Grand Challenges in Public Health" program identifies the tightest bottlenecks to progress in global health and calls for innovative solutions. One study aimed to thwart mosquitoes' ability to smell human beings. If the insects can't locate potential hosts, they can't spread the malaria parasite that they carry. Having recognized that the boldest and most creative ideas do not always come from well-established labs, the Gateses designed one arm of the Grand Challenges enterprise to engage those who have not traditionally participated in health research.
Between 1994 and 2006, the Gateses gave their Foundation more than $26 billion. In addition to donating their own resources, they have invited other billionaires to do the same. For example, in 2010, Bill and Melinda Gates partnered with Warren Buffett to announce "The Giving Pledge," which encourages the world's richest families to donate the majority of their wealth to philanthropic causes.
The couple contributes far more than money. In his efforts to stamp out polio, Bill Gates met with Nigerian religious leaders; they were in a good position, he realized, to counteract widespread rumors that the vaccine is part of a plot to sterilize Muslim girls. Last year, Melinda Gates played a key role in organizing the London Summit on Family Planning, which secured numerous commitments to advance this endeavor and re-energized the field.
When the Gateses visit far-flung corners of Earth, they illuminate the plight of people who normally subsist far from the developed world's sight. Their moral compass, persuasiveness, imagination, and generosity unite to propagate the idea of "impatient optimism." They believe they can instigate positive change, and they are doing it now.
by Evelyn Strauss