Bill Gates' interview updates polio film


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To mark World Polio Day on Thursday, the Smithsonian Channel will premiere a revised and updated version of Steeltown Entertainment Project's 2010 documentary "The Shot Felt 'Round the World" that adds a rare interview with Bill Gates.

Now called "A Shot to Save the World," the 47-minute documentary airs at 8 p.m. Thursday and goes beyond the narrated reflections by Pittsburgh pioneers in the original film to provide a wider view of the chilling times in America when Jonas Salk and his team worked frantically to develop an effective polio vaccine. At that time in the 1950s, the disease was infecting more than 50,000 children a year in the U.S.

"Kids in wheelchairs and leg braces became a tragically common sight," a narrator says in the new version, referring to the paralyzed children left in the wake of the disease. "Thousands of families mourned for their children who didn't make it. Worst of all, everyone knew the plague would return summer after summer."

Playgrounds were abandoned, swimming pools closed. The homes of sick children were quarantined.

The Smithsonian piece still retains a lot of the Pittsburgh flavor of the original, including comments from Julius Youngner, who turns 93 Thursday and is the last surviving member of the core research team. But it gives more attention to future eradication efforts, as well as the dramatic rivalry between Salk and Albert Sabin, who while working in Cincinnati created the oral vaccine using live polio virus two years after the University of Pittsburgh virologist developed his effective vaccine containing the killed virus.

PG graphic: Progress in polio eradication
(Click image for larger version)

Carl Kurlander, president and CEO of Steeltown Entertainment, who co-produced the documentary with Laura Davis, helped arrange the interview with Mr. Gates, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has named polio eradication a top priority among its vaccination campaigns.

The development of the polio vaccine "was a huge milestone in human health," Mr. Gates says in the documentary. Going forward, scientists are ramping up the use of technology -- GPS tracking, satellite maps to find remote villages and information exchange on the Internet. The aim also is to create an infrastructure for a vaccine or health delivery system that could benefit other causes.

"Polio eradication is the thing that I spend the most time on," Mr. Gates says. "My foundation would have given several billion dollars to it by the time it's done."

Mr. Kurlander says he is in awe of the philanthropist. "He has thought this through in a way which is much deeper than most people realize.

"What would you do if you had all the money in the world and wanted to change it?" Mr. Kurlander says. "Almost no one would choose polio."

Last summer, the Gates Foundation upped its matching commitments in fundraising efforts with Rotary International, which could bring in more than $500 million. Rotary has pushed for polio eradication -- in fundraising and volunteer work -- for decades.

The estimated cost of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative's 2013-18 endgame strategic plan is $5.5 billion, much of which is funded by nations.

Eradication is getting close. While 600,000 people a year worldwide were infected with polio in the 1950s, there were only 223 cases recorded globally last year.

Mr. Kurlander says a 10-minute clip of the new documentary was shared with Rotary International leaders at a recent meeting, who vowed to make more noise to elevate the visibility of the effort.

Advocates are trying to use the movie to remind people about the heightened fear that cloaked the nation, especially when polio returned each summer. "For that way the movie has been surprisingly effective," he says.

A special screening of the documentary had been scheduled at the Centers for Disease and Prevention but was canceled because of the recent federal government shutdown. He's hoping a screening will be rescheduled in the future.

As the centennial of Jonas Salk's birthday arrives next year (Oct. 28, 1914), Mr. Kurlander hopes the movie -- which features both of Salk's sons, Drs. Peter and Jonathan Salk -- will gain more attention and prominence.

"Our hope," he says, "is that this movie will be used as a vehicle to call attention to what is possible when the world comes together."

"A Shot to Save the World," is scheduled to air 8 and 11 p.m. Thursday and 3 p.m. Saturday on the Smithsonian Channel.


Virginia Linn: vlinn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1662.

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