Steve Connor: An open letter to Bill Gates

Lab Notes


Dear Bill,


As the second richest man in the world, I know you are not short of people giving you advice, but I thought I'd pen a quick letter to you to fill you in on a recent round table I sat in on with some vaccine scientists, journalists and a few of your people from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The aim of the meeting at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine was apparently to brief you on why the media in Britain don't seem to be picking up on the "good news" about vaccines in the developing world.

Back in January you announced at the World Economic Forum in Davos that the coming10 years should be the "decade of vaccines", which will be generously funded with $10bn (£6.3bn) from your personal fortune. As you pointed out, about 2.4 million children in the poorest countries of the world still die each year from diseases that could be easily prevented by vaccines widely available in the developed world.

Of course the story of vaccines over the past few decades has been one of astonishing successes. Each year, more than 100 million children are vaccinated against measles, polio and other preventable diseases, and it is estimated that the lives of some 20 million children in the Third World have been saved over the past two decades.

Professor David Salisbury, an eminent vaccine scientist and member of the WHO's Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunisation, told us that it is often quite difficult to get the message across to parents about the benefit of vaccinating their children when the end result is the absence of a disease which they have not therefore encountered. And that is similarly the problem with the media. Leave aside for one moment the cliché that "good news doesn't sell newspapers", the reporting of "no deaths today" is a difficult one to pull off. Something not happening is always going to be trumped in the news agenda by something that actually happens.

Another problem is the fact that vaccination strategies are an ongoing process, and it is difficult to the media to focus their attention on something so on-going unless there are milestones of some kind – a scientific breakthrough perhaps, or the point at which a disease is finally eradicated.

The story of polio is a good example. As you know, there are just four countries now where this terrible illness remains endemic – Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and Nigeria – and the virus is stubbornly lingering on to trigger outbreaks in other countries. A last-ditch effort to vaccinate children in these regions could eradicate this disease for good, just as smallpox was eradicated more than 30 years ago. The really big "good news" story here that we are all waiting to report on is the point at which polio can be declared to be eradicated... or perhaps there will be the bad news of it re-emerging in Europe or Britain.

Walt Orenstein, from your foundation, said the eradication of polio worldwide is critical for the success of other vaccine initiatives. "In essence, we have polio on the ropes... If we don't finish it off now, we run the risk of a resurgence." More important, he said, a failure to eradicate polio will be seen as a public relations disaster for the overall policy of controlling diseases in the developing world through mass vaccination.

You will no doubt be getting a report back from your advisers about the London round table. Professor Peter Smith from the London school raised the subject of vaccine "scare stories", which he pointed out are more likely to get the media's attention here than the good news about vaccines saving the lives of more than 2 million children a year.

Much has been written on this subject, of course. My own take, for what it's worth, is that dry epidemiological statistics showing the benefits of vaccination are not always going to win over parents who are emotionally affected by a single harrowing case of a damaged child who may or may not have been made ill by a vaccine. The power of personal anecdote will so often trump a scientific, cost-benefit analysis – that is human nature.

So, to finish up, it is important to realise that the media's coverage of vaccines is a reflection of the diverse views among the public at large. It would be wrong to assume that we have the power to dictate public opinion. We all find bad news often more interesting and important than good news, we don't want constant reports of an ongoing process that doesn't change very much, and we need milestones around which to crystallise a story. That's why reporting on the obvious benefits of mass vaccination in the developing world is so difficult.

I hope that helps.

Best wishes.

Steve

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
life
Property
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Life and Style
tech
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
The Commonwealth flag flies outside Westminster Abbey in central London
news
Arts and Entertainment
Struggling actors who scrape a living working in repertory theatres should get paid a 'living wage', Sir Ian McKellen has claimed
theatre
Extras
indybest
News
Skye McCole Bartusiak's mother said she didn't use drink or drugs
peopleActress was known for role in Mel Gibson film The Patriot
Arts and Entertainment
tvWebsite will allow you to watch all 522 shows on-demand
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Community / Stakeholder Manager - Solar PV

£50000 - £60000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: The Green Recruitmen...

Senior Marketing Executive (B2B/B2C) - London

£32000 - £35000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

C# .Net Developer

£23000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: C# .Net Develop re...

Electronics Design Engineer

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: My client are l...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor