Bill Gates is set to speak in Spokane next weekend about his work with Rotary International to eradicate polio worldwide.
His talk, May 18 at the Spokane Convention Center, highlights a three-day conference with about 750 Rotary members from Seattle, Eastern Washington, Idaho and Canada. Although the event is sold out, Rotary has $25 tickets open to the public in a separate 270-seat theater for a live broadcast at the venue.
Downtown also will be filled that night with the Spokane Lilac Festival Armed Forces Torchlight Parade.
Gates, billionaire co-founder of Microsoft and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, is expected to talk at about 7:30 p.m., followed by a moderated interview of Gates and Barry Rassin, Rotary International president.
Gates plans to speak about progress to end the paralyzing viral disease in all corners of the world and where the effort is hampered by conflicts and in hard-to-reach populations. Gates and Rassin will then sit on a stage for a question-and-answer period to continue that dialogue and talk about future collaboration.
“We invited Mr. Gates because with Rotary International we have a very strong partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as far as eradicating polio,” said Bev Reed, a Rotary district governor in Spokane.
“It’s just an opportunity to bring Mr. Gates here to share the message of where we’re at and why it’s important to continue to raise money to ensure we can eradicate it, hopefully in the next few years.”
Reed helped organize “Rotarians Come Together in Spokane,” which will include a Thursday golf tournament and wine-tasting before the conference starts at noon Friday. It’s the first conference that brings together members from about 100 different clubs representing two regional districts – Seattle and the one that Reed leads stretching from British Columbia to Pullman.
“We’ve never done a joint district conference before, so this is something very new,” Reed said.
The Global Polio Eradication Initiative involves a partnership of the World Health Organization, Rotary International, the Gates Foundation, United Nations Children’s Fund and others. The initiative began work in 1988 when the disease was endemic in 125 countries and was paralyzing nearly 1,000 children a day globally.
The Gates Foundation website says the last three countries in which polio remains endemic are Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria.
Since the initiative’s start, more than 2.5 billion children have been immunized against polio with the cooperation of more than 200 countries and 20 million volunteers, backed by an international investment of more than $11 billion. The initiative says it’s had success eradicating certain strains.
Polio, or poliomyelitis, is a highly infectious disease that can cause lifelong paralysis and death. There is no cure, and the initiative’s strategy is based on preventing infection by immunizing every child until transmission stops and the world is polio-free.
The disease was once one of the most feared in the U.S. In the early 1950s, before polio vaccines were available, outbreaks caused more than 15,000 U.S. cases of paralysis each year. With vaccines, the number of polio cases fell rapidly to less than 100 in the 1960s and fewer than 10 in the 1970s, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The global polio eradication initiative says it’s achieved at least a 99% reduction in cases since 1988. However, tackling the last 1% of polio cases has proved difficult in areas of conflict, political instability, hard-to-reach populations and poor infrastructure, the Gates Foundation reports.
Reed, who retired in 2017 from the YMCA after 30 years, admitted it was a “pie-in-the-sky” dream to draw Gates to Spokane. But it might have helped that Reed knows one of Gates’ two sisters, although she declined to name that sibling. The idea came up in a casual conversation with that sister.
“I’m just kind of that gal who thinks, if you don’t ask, you’re not going to get it,” Reed said. “I have a good relationship actually with his sister, so I just said, ‘What are the chances?’
“She paused and said, ‘If you have your presentation and letter of request, I’ll give it to him.’ ”
Reed said she asked the sister what the chances were of landing Bill Gates as a speaker with that hand-delivered pitch. The answer: “Maybe 50-50.”
“So she didn’t promise anything,” Reed added. “It was very gracious of her to give him the request. We were blessed. It’s very exciting.”
Rotary is an international service club of business and professional people connecting 1.2 million members through more than 35,000 Rotary clubs in some 200 countries and geographical areas. Members seek to improve lives at local and international levels, from helping low-income residents in their own communities to global initiatives such as polio eradication.
The Spokane conference also includes a Friday morning visit by about 125 Rotary members to Second Harvest, who will be volunteering to repackage large containers of food into family-sized packages. It’s part of a $12,000 grant to the nonprofit from both districts, Reed said.
She estimates a total of 1,000 people will be at the conference when considering all the different activities and venues. That includes a number of young professionals ages 18-30 who are in Rotaract clubs. Rotaract members in Spokane have hosted the Junior Lilac Parade since 2005.
People who want to get theater tickets for the live remote viewing of Gates’ visit can order them online only at www.cometogether2019.com. A printed ticket is required to enter the venue, Reed said. The group has already sold about 50 to 60 of those tickets.
Reed suggested arriving at the site before 7 p.m. because of downtown parade congestion.
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