Polio could be eradicated in the next two to four years, billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates predicted yesterday as he appealed to world leaders attending a global vaccine summit in London to commit extra funding to protect the world's poorest children.
If achieved, one of the most dreaded diseases of the 20th century, which crippled thousands of children in Britain and worldwide, could become the second to be consigned to the history books, after smallpox was eradicated in 1979.
Mr Gates was answering questions from the public in a phone-in organised by Save the Children in advance of today's summit meeting of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) which is seeking to raise an extra £2.3 billion to save four million lives over the next five years.
The extra cash is needed to fund two new vaccines which provide protection against pneumonia and diarrhoeal disease and have the potential to save one million lives a year.
David Cameron, who will host the summit, yesterday pledged to raise the UK's contribution to Gavi and defended the decision against critics in his own party, including Liam Fox the Defence Secretary, who have argued that to raise overseas aid spending at a time of domestic austerity could lead to legal challenges.
"I don't believe it would be right to ignore the difference we can make, turn inwards solely to our own problems and effectively balance our books while breaking our promises to the world's poorest. Instead, we should step up, deliver on our promises to the world's poorest and help save millions of lives," Mr Cameron said.
Even sceptics about the value of aid admit that vaccination is one of the best and most cost-effective ways of protecting children. It is estimated the lives of 20 million children have been saved over the past two decades. Overall 7,000 children's lives are saved by vaccines of all types every day.
Mr Gates, who will address today's summit, has pledged $10 billion (£6.3 billion) of his personal fortune to what he has termed the "decade of vaccines." But he knows that persuading parents of the benefits of vaccination is difficult in the face of cultural opposition, scares about vaccine safety and when the only "gain" is the absence of disease.
The vaccine lobby urgently needs a victory to show it has made the world a safer place - and polio, first identified in 1840, could provide it.
By 2000 only a few hundred cases were occurring each year worldwide and today the disease is endemic in just four countries - India, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. But the virus has so far defied all attempts to eradicate it.
Mr Gates described how in India an "unbelievable effort" had been made to reach out to the poorest families to ensure they were protected. "There has been only one case [of polio] in India this year - and that looked like the most difficult country to overcome the disease," he said
Nigeria had been on the brink of eradication in 2003, he said, when a rumour spread that the vaccination caused sterility in women and was part of a plot to eliminate Muslims. "Leaders spoke out and we got a turn around - but [a scare like] this is a problem we are always worried about," he said.
Save the Children's Vaccines For All report reveals that: