Lions Club Convention
July 7, 2011
Prepared remarks by William H. Gates Sr., Co-chair
Thank you, Chairperson Wurfs.
Being here in Key Arena, former home of our beloved Seattle Supersonics, I am tempted to ask if there are any Lions here from Oklahoma City….
You stole our basketball team!
It’s a pleasure to welcome so many visitors to the Pacific Northwest. We may have lost our basketball team, but we feel like we gained 15,000 friends. I watched your parade on Tuesday, and all I can say is:
Here in this part of the country, we’re proud of our regional peculiarities. We wear sandals with socks, and we boast about it. We are notoriously passive aggressive drivers, yielding obsessively to pedestrians. We make no apology.
We also exhibit some more substantive traits. From our pioneering past, we learned to respect the necessity of courage—and the wisdom of cooperation. Because we all enjoy living in the midst of such natural beauty, we believe we share responsibility for protecting our environment.
But standing here in front of thousands of Lions from all over the world, I see plainly that courage and cooperation and responsibility aren’t unique to my neck of the woods. You are proof that the better angels of our nature, to use Abraham Lincoln’s famous phrase, don’t reside in a single region, which was precisely Lincoln’s point. These angels don’t belong to one nationality, or one race, or one religion. They bless all of humanity.
As Lions, you stand for what is best in all of us. You are more than one million people, organized into more than 45,000 clubs, located in more than 200 countries—and you have chosen to serve together. Not even the most dyed-in-the-wool cynic could dismiss what you do….
Your significance is captured not merely by what you do, but also by how you do it. You harness people’s service, channel it, so that it makes the greatest possible difference in our world.
You know, it’s hard to have a big impact. Take the example of blindness. What can one person do about it? No matter how much money they have to spend, no matter how much energy they have to give—it’s a global problem in need of a large-scale solution.
And that’s what the Lions provide. You combine millions of individual acts of service into a whole that is, as the saying goes, greater than the sum of its parts. And look what you have done: You have restored sight for more than 30 million people!
It’s worth pausing for just a moment to reflect on what that statistic means.
I’m fortunate. I still have pretty good eyesight. But my hearing is bad. The five senses aren’t fungible. I have no idea what it’s like to be blind. But I know how much I rely on a place down the road called the Hearing Speech and Deafness Center to help me manage my hearing problem.
If I didn’t have the benefit of their services, I wouldn’t be able to work; I wouldn’t be able to stay involved in local causes; I wouldn’t be able to participate in events like this one.
For hundreds of millions of people with vision problems around the world, you are the equivalent of the Hearing Speech and Deafness Center. You are the thing, the only thing, warding off the darkness.
I want to congratulate you not just for doing the right thing, but for doing it in a smart, strategic way that changes lives.
One major cause of blindness around the world is measles. As you saw in the video, the Lions recently started working on measles in several countries. I want to congratulate the Lions from Ethiopia, Madagascar, Mali, and Nigeria for your great work. You just got started, and you’re already succeeding.
You’re making sure that immunization systems are functioning efficiently, and then you’re mobilizing people in those communities to use those systems to protect their children. I hear that clubs in other countries are learning about your accomplishments and are clamoring to join you in tackling measles.
I would ask your indulgence as I talk in some more detail about this disease. We at the Gates Foundation think that the fight against measles is especially important, and that the Lions are in a position to help lead that fight.
Measles is one of the great stories in global health. You tend to hear plenty of bad news about what’s happening in poor countries. Watching television and reading the paper, you can get the idea that the situation is hopeless.
Now, as Lions, you know more than the average citizen of the world about these issues. You know about the recent progress on river blindness and trachoma. You know about it, because you’re responsible for it.
Well, measles is another stunning example of what’s possible when we focus on solutions. In the last decade, measles deaths are down by more than 90 percent across the continent of Africa. Ten years ago, more than 2,000 children died from the disease every day. Now, that number is down to fewer than 500. Cases of measles-related, childhood blindness have been slashed around the world. Mothers are no longer so afraid of that horrible measles rash.
There are two main reasons for the progress we’ve made. The first is the measles vaccine, and the second is the world’s determination to deliver the vaccine to children who need it.
At the Gates Foundation, vaccines are a top priority. Bill and Melinda started their foundation because they believe that all lives have equal value. If any child can be saved from disease, then all children should be.
Vaccines are the best way to make sure every person has the chance at a healthy and productive life. They are relatively inexpensive, they are relatively easy to deliver, and they are proven to protect children from disease for a lifetime.
The measles vaccine is a perfect example. It costs about 25 cents, and it confers permanent immunity on almost every child who receives it.
However, it’s important to note that progress is not the same as victory. Measles still kills. More than 150,000 children in the most recent year on record. And measles is one of the most contagious viruses in the world, so it will come back with a deadly vengeance if we give it a chance. That’s where determination to deliver the vaccine comes in.
One of the challenges of the fight against measles, and of immunization in general, is that you’ve got to keep at it. You’ve got to be relentless, tireless. Because children who need to be protected—from measles, from diphtheria, from rotavirus, from polio—are born every day. You don’t vaccinate once. You do it year, after year, after year. As long as you do, children are safe. But when you stop, children die.
The history of measles in the United States provides a useful case study. We started vaccinating in earnest in 1966. Within two years, cases had declined from half a million annually to just 22,000. That’s how powerful the vaccine can be. But then we let up, and cases more than tripled. By 1974, we were down to 22,000 cases for the second time. Then, we let up again, and there was a major outbreak in 1977. The need for vigilance still isn’t over. Two weeks ago, the Centers for Disease Control sent out a measles advisory! We’ve had more cases this year than in any year since 1996.
A colleague of mine at the foundation wrote an article about the American experience with measles. “The lesson,” he said, “was that … a constant level of support was needed to assure measles did not return.”
I am worried that the world may not have learned that lesson well enough. After the tremendous reduction in measles cases over the last decade, funding has started to dwindle. In 2007, the global Measles Initiative raised $150 million. By 2009, it was $50 million. Last year, $35 million. It’s no wonder there has been a resurgence of measles in several African countries.
It’s simple. As my colleague said, a constant level of support is needed. You can be that support. You’ve already proven it with years of work on blindness. You can immunize children at Lions health centers. You can advocate for making measles a priority with the influential people you know. You can mobilize your communities and make sure children are taken for all their scheduled vaccinations.
Stopping measles will be a full time job, and you are a full-time service organization. Governments get distracted. Individuals’ interest waxes and wanes. But you have been here for just about a century, and you’ll be here another century hence. If you put yourself in charge of fighting this disease, you will succeed.
The Gates Foundation is proud to have been a partner in your early measles projects. We are excited to continue working together with you to battle this awful disease and build up immunization for all children.
There’s an African proverb we refer to a lot at the foundation. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” With Lions in the lead, there is no telling how far we will go together.
I love your motto. It is so elegant in its simplicity. “We serve.”
The thing I love most about it is the lack of explanation and qualification. You don’t say, “We serve for reasons x, y, and z.” You don’t say, “We serve in ways a, b, and c.” It’s simply “We serve.” Period. It’s just what you do.
There is a huge array of important things that need doing, and they don’t get done unless people roll up their sleeves and get to work. No more discussion needed.
I am so excited to see how much good you will do when you roll up your sleeves and get to work on measles. You are Lions. It’s what you do.