The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded US$255 million to Rotary International in the global effort to eradicate polio, bringing the total committed by Rotary and the Gates Foundation to $555 million.

Shortly after meeting with incoming district governors from the four countries where the wild poliovirus is endemic -- Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan -- Bill Gates announced the new grant on Wednesday morning at the International Assembly in San Diego, California, USA.

"Rotarians, government leaders, and health professionals have made a phenomenal commitment to get us to a point at which polio afflicts only a small number of the world's children," Gates said. "However, complete elimination of the poliovirus is difficult and will continue to be difficult for a number of years. Rotary in particular has inspired my own personal commitment to get deeply involved in achieving eradication."

"We are going to end polio now," affirmed Robert S. Scott, chair of RI's International PolioPlus Committee.

In response to the new $255 million Gates Foundation grant, Rotary will raise $100 million in matching funds. In November 2007, RI received a $100 million Gates Foundation grant, which Rotary committed to match by raising $100 million.

The two Gates Foundation challenge grants now total $355 million. Rotary International's matching effort in response is called Rotary's US$200 Million Challenge, which must be completed by 30 June 2012.

The $255 million grant is one of the largest challenge grants ever given by the Gates Foundation and the largest received by Rotary in its 104-year history. Rotary will spend the grant in direct support of immunization activities carried out by the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, which is spearheaded by RI and its partners , the World Health Organization, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and UNICEF. Rotary will distribute the funds through grants to WHO and UNICEF.

The participation of Rotary clubs and individual Rotarians in Rotary's US$200 Million Challenge remains crucial to its success. Rotary has raised nearly $73 million toward this amount: $62 million in contributions and $11 million in commitments. Each club is being challenged to organize a public fundraiser annually for the next three years. In October, The Rotary Foundation Trustees approved special Paul Harris Fellow Recognition, which begins 1 July, featuring a certificate with the End Polio Now logo.

Polio eradication has been Rotary's top priority since 1985, with more than $1.2 billion contributed to the effort. Gates praised Rotary for providing the volunteers, advocates, and donors who have helped bring about a 99 percent decline in the number of polio cases. "The world would not be where it is without Rotary, and it won't get where it needs to go without Rotary," he said.

The final hurdle still is ahead, said RI President-elect John Kenny. This grant shows that the Gates Foundation is just as committed as Rotary to ridding the world of this disease, he said.

Gates also shared with the incoming district governors and Rotary leaders a story from his trip to India in November, when he held a nine-month-old girl afflicted with polio in his arms in a slum in East Delhi.

"She obviously didn't understand why people were poking her legs and looking so serious. But she'll never be able to kick a ball around, never be able to play hide-and-seek with her friends, because she has polio," Gates said. "As I held Hashmin, I thought, We can end this."

"We don't know exactly when the last child will be affected. But we do have the vaccines to wipe it out," he said. "Countries do have the will to deploy all the tools at their disposal. If we all have the fortitude to see this effort through to the end, then we will eradicate polio."

In addition, the governments of the United Kingdom and Germany announced they have respectively committed $150 million and $130 million to eradicate polio, which will not count toward Rotary's challenge.

Government support is key to polio eradication efforts, said Scott.