Polio has all but been eradicated from the Earth, but not quite. So Bill Gates and the soccer club FC Barcelona are joining forces to push the effort past the goal line.
Gates unveiled the new effort standing alongside FC Barcelona President Sandro Rosell and head coach Josep Guardiola on Thursday at the Newseum. They're calling it the "More than a Goal. End Polio" campaign, a play on Barcelona's "More than a Club" tagline -- or "Més que un club" for all you die-hard Barça fans.
Thanks to global immunization campaigns, polio has been reduced worldwide by 99 percent in the last two decades. But last year, polio resurfaced in Russia after 13 years without sign of the disease. Since 2005 the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation spends about $200 million each year on the polio eradication effort, and the world as a whole has spent over $9 billion since 1988. The persistent inability to eliminate the last 1 percent of cases has some experts thinking that eradication may not be worth the effort, but still Gates is adamant. "We still have this one percent left and it's a serious problem. The last one percent is the most difficult of all and that's why I'm spending time on this," he said.
In 1988, polio paralyzed or killed almost 350,000 children, but today there are fewer than 1,500 cases, according to statistics from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2010, polio reemerged in 14 countries and remains endemic in four -- Afghanistan, India, Nigeria and Pakistan. Oral polio vaccine is simple to administer and very cheap. A few drops, in several doses early in a child's development, can protect children for life. Each dose costs only 13 cents, meaning a $115 official Barcelona jersey could buy 881 polio doses. Barcelona already contributes 0.7 percent of its income to various development efforts, including UNICEF.
Still, the effort is short on funds. The Global Polio Eradication Initiative, a consortium of governments, private foundations, development banks, and NGOs, warns that insufficient funds are jeopardizing the polio eradication effort. According to their website, funding for 2011-2012 is $590 million short of the $1.95 billion budget.
Barcelona plans to spread the message through in-stadium advertisements, announcements during matches, and via social media to the millions of followers worldwide. (Although, it seems, the partnership will not appear on next year's jersey.) "Fútbol is the most followed sport by far," Rosell said. "It's an international language that everyone can use."
Gates admitted that he knows little about soccer except two things: Soccer is the world's most popular sport, and Barcelona is perhaps the world's best-known club. He said that Barcelona's global presence will help his foundation reach audiences in remote corners of the world that his foundation otherwise might not be able to reach.
Guardiola was asked what his team -- known in the soccer universe for its efficient passing and teamwork -- might be able to teach the U.S. Congress during their stay in Washington. "Wow, what a tough question. I think Mr. Gates knows more than me on this so I pass the ball to him," he said. Gates just shook his head.
FC Barcelona will next play a highly-anticipated Champions League final rematch against Manchester United at FedEx Field in Maryland on July 30, and will then head to Miami and Dallas as part of their U.S. tour.
Here is the promotional video of the "More than a Goal. End Polio" campaign.