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Relentless pursuit of an equitable world

The Optimist

Illustration of Ruth Bishop, vaccines

How a virologist named Ruth saved millions of children and led Bill & me to get into philanthropy

Throughout much of human history, hundreds of thousands of children died every year from acute gastroenteritis, with symptoms such as severe diarrhea and vomiting. Despite it being one of the leading causes of child illness and mortality, no one had any idea what was causing it.

That is, until 1973, when a young Australian virologist named Ruth Bishop and her team at The Royal Children’s Hospital in Melbourne first identified what is now known as rotavirus using an electron microscope, which can capture objects just a nanometer in length. Soon, the virus was being recognized in children around the world. After centuries in the dark, science finally had an answer. Bishop told The Lancet: "It was like pressing a whole lot of light bulbs on a world map. Everyone was saying, 'We have found the virus, too.'”

 Photo of Ruth Bishop 

You’ve likely never heard of her, but Professor Bishop’s contemporaries in the field said hers was a discovery as significant as the discovery of polio, and it earned her the Florey Medal in Australia—making her the first woman ever to receive the prestigious biomedical research award. Bishop’s team would also go on to develop a test to diagnose the rotavirus infection and better understand how the immune system responds. Their work paved the way for the discovery of a live oral vaccine that significantly reduces the severity of the disease and now saves hundreds of thousands of young lives around the world every year. In 2000, six years before the first safe vaccine was available, 528,000 children died of rotavirus. By 2016, that number fell to 128,500.

Of course, developing a new vaccine is only the beginning of the work, as these numbers show. We also have to make sure everyone who needs that vaccine has access to it. Too many children are still dying of what is now a vaccine-preventable disease, and they are disproportionately poor children. Ninety-five percent of rotavirus deaths today are in low-income countries in Africa and Asia.

The fight against rotavirus has been an issue close to our hearts for decades. In fact, Bill and I were moved to start our foundation, in part, after reading a New York Times article about children who were dying in huge numbers from this infection. And it’s why we have been proud supporters of Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, from the very beginning. It remains one of our foundation’s largest investments. 

Gavi was founded in 2000 by a group of global health leaders. Its mission is straightforward: Make access to lifesaving vaccines more equitable. All told, Gavi has helped vaccinate more than three-quarters of a billion children against diseases in the world’s poorest countries—places where access to certain vaccines is only possible because Gavi has secured affordable pricing through long-term supply agreements with vaccine manufacturers. The alliance has already helped protect more than 100 million children against rotavirus. And if we further increase access to rotavirus vaccines in Gavi countries, we could prevent more than 2.4 million deaths in the next 10 years.

The current COVID-19 crisis only underscores the importance of the work done by heroes like Ruth Bishop and organizations like Gavi. As researchers around the globe work furiously to learn more about the novel coronavirus and develop effective vaccines against it, Gavi and its partners have pledged to make the final product widely accessible in low- and middle-income countries as soon as it is available—because in our interconnected world, we will not end this pandemic until everyone can have access to the vaccine.