When a Pittsburgh filmmaker met Bill Gates

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On Valentine’s Day earlier this year I found myself in Seattle on a strange blind date with Smithsonian Channel producer Charles Poe. The two of us were there to speak with Bill Gates for our film we were doing, “A Shot to Save the World,” which chronicles the development of the Salk polio vaccine, and to explore why Mr. Gates had made eradicating polio the No. 1 priority for his foundation.

How many of us -- if we had all the money in the world, literally -- and the kind of brain that could have envision a computer on everyone’s desk at a time when computers were the size of entire rooms would choose to focus on wiping out a disease that the average American probably thought was already gone?

This journey began for me in 2005 when I made a film with some students at the University of Pittsburgh on the 50th anniversary of the date that Jonas Salk declared the polio vaccine “safe, effective and potent.” There, we heard tales of how each summer parents were terrified about sending their kids to swimming pools, movie theaters, even to birthday parties, for fear they would catch the polio virus and end up in a dreaded iron lung.

And then, a nation rallied behind a polio-stricken president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and sent dimes to the White House for research, some of which went to a then-unknown 33-year-old virologist doctor in Pittsburgh, Jonas Salk. who with his research team there, in just six short years, developed the first successful polio vaccine. He tested it first on Pittsburgh school children and then on 1.8 million Americans in the world’s largest medical field trial the world has ever known.

In the eight years it has taken to get the film to this point, there has been a worldwide questioning about the validity of vaccines -- fueled by a controversial doctor in the U.K. and an American actress now hosting “The View.” When we began, Hollywood was even contemplating an “anti-vaccine” movie. During this time, Mr. Gates was examining what to do with the largest philanthropic fortune ever to be given away. Certainly, he was aware of the great need in the world -- poverty, education, other global health crisies.

But he had decided that per penny, “developing and distributing vaccines” were the best investment we as a society could make. He knew what we had learned in making the movie -- that although it was hard to explain to folks a phenomenon most noted by the absence of disease, vaccines have saved hundred of millions of lives, more lives than any other scientific achievement in human history.

What strikes you when Mr. Gates enters the room is his focus. As he sits in front of our modest camera in his blue shirt and khakis -- looking quite similar to the way he has looked on magazine covers since he was in his 20s -- he immediately gets to business, describing with precise detail exactly what it took for Salk to develop a “killed” virus vaccine and how an iron lung regulated polio victims respiratory functions.

At the same time, he talks with passion about the technology that has been required today to fight polio -- of “magic refrigerators” that keep vaccines cold when being transported to remote villages in the desert and GPS tracking systems that are required to make sure polio workers go to the proper houses to immunize a population like India -- which has a billion people who were just last year declared “polio free” with no new cases of polio reported.

He describes the global collective effort it has taken, with groups like Rotary International and the World Health Organization partnering with governments to reduce polio from being in 125 countries in the mid-1980s to now being down to just three countries where polio transmission has never been interrupted: Afghanistan, Pakistan and Nigeria.

As he speaks, one gets the sense that Mr. Gates is taking all he learned in building a company like Microsoft and applying it to scaling global health in a way the world has never known.

He is using his credibility to come up with scientific and political solutions with the full intent of trying to accomplish what has been done only once before in human history -- with smallpox -- and wipe a disease off the face of the planet. And that he is doing this because he believes, if we as a people can accomplish this, then the infrastructure and confidence would be in place to go after other global health challenges like malaria and AIDS. While it may strange to think of Mr. Gates as an underdog, one realizes that while he has committed his time and money to literally changing the world in one of the most tangible ways -- eliminating a childhood disease -- this story has gone far underreported, as people seem more interested in what his relationship was with Steve Jobs and whether his kids have iPads.

There is one story I remember most from the interview. He mentioned his daughter watching a video of a child with polio in another country who had been crippled by the disease. She asked him, “Dad, are we helping that girl?” And he explained that they are helping many kids around the world. And she persisted, “Yes, but are we helping that girl?”

And, then, after a pause, Bill says he looked into it and discovered that they had done what they could for the girl. They had gotten her crutches or whatever they could. (There is still no cure for polio.)

And it was in that moment, when I realized Bill and Melinda Gates are doing what every parent would do if they had the resources -- trying to make the world a better place for their kids -- and for everyone else.


Carl Kurlander produced “A Shot to Save the World,” which has its broadcast premiere on World Polio Day, Thursday Oct. 24, on the Smithsonian Channel. He teaches at the University of Pittsburgh as a senior lecturer (carl@steeltown.org).

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