Bill Gates, chairman and co-founder of Microsoft Corp., called Monday for urgent donations to stop the spread of polio and make it the first infectious disease eradicated since smallpox was wiped from the planet in 1979.
The billionaire, who contributes about $200 million a year to the cause through the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is pressing rich nations to plug a $720 million funding gap to eliminate the crippling, potentially lethal virus by 2013.
Cases worldwide were reduced to 946 last year from about 3,500 in 2000, after world health leaders called for a new $2.6 billion strategic plan to finish the task.
Gates announced $102 million in extra funding in Davos, Switzerland, last week, joining the U.K. government and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi, in bolstering support for polio. Monday, in New York, Gates said the foundation is making eradication of polio its top priority.
"It is the thing we can do to most improve the human condition," Gates, 55, said in a speech at Roosevelt House, the New York home where President Franklin D. Roosevelt recuperated after being stricken with polio at age 39.
Roosevelt and his law partner Basil O'Conner later started the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, whose March of Dimes campaign mobilized the country against polio and raised millions of dollars to support the search for an effective vaccine.
Wiping out polio in the next two years would cost $2 billion.
"This is a magical several-year period," Gates said. Gates said he is committed to the campaign because it provides "a chance at one of the greatest successes of mankind."
Polio paralyzed millions of people worldwide in the 20th century before vaccines became widely available from the mid- 1950s. At the height of the most extensive polio outbreak ever in 1952, almost 60,000 cases with more than 3,000 deaths were reported in the United States alone.
Today there are now four countries where polio transmission has never been stopped: India, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
"That's incredible progress, but the last 1 percent remains a true danger," Gates said in his annual letter released Monday. "Eradication is not guaranteed. It requires campaigns to give polio vaccine to all children under 5 in poor countries, at a cost of almost $1 billion per year."