ISLAMABAD (AP) — Pakistan awarded Microsoft co-founder and billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates its second-highest civilian honor on Thursday, in recognition of his work to alleviate poverty and diseases like polio and tuberculosis.
On a daylong visit to the capital, Islamabad, Gates was given the prestigious Hilal-e-Pakistan award by President Arif Alvi in a televised ceremony, after he met with Prime Minister Imran Khan at his office.
“Pakistan’s commitment to ending polio is inspiring,” Gates said in a statement released by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Gates’ foundation has helped nearly eradicate the disease.
“Government leaders, health workers, and parents are working tirelessly to ensure this disease never paralyzes a child again. This is the final, and hardest, phase of the eradication effort, but by keeping up the momentum and staying vigilant, Pakistan has an opportunity to make history by ending polio for good,” Gates said.
The statement quoted Khan as thanking Gates and saying that polio eradication is a “top priority” for the government, which is working “at all levels to ensure that every child is protected with the polio vaccine.”
According to a government statement, Khan during his meeting with Gates thanked the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation for its continued partnership with Pakistan to eradicate polio.
Later, Gates told reporters in Islamabad that he was impressed by Pakistan’s efforts. He said there polio had spread less in Pakistan than anticipated because people were moving around less during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He said the eradication of polio in Pakistan was possible in a few years.
“I think the steps taken in Pakistan during 2022 will probably set us up to finish polio eradication,” he said.
“I would say that the polio campaign helped the Covid campaign and now the Covid campaign is helping the polio campaign,” Gates said. As for Afghanistan, he said that more polio vaccination was taking place there now compared to recent years.
Earlier, Gates visited the National Command Operations Center (NCOC), the body overseeing Pakistan’s coronavirus response since the pandemic began, where he was given a detailed briefing about Pakistan’s vaccination drive.
The NCOC said in a statement that Gates recognized Pakistan’s success against COVID-19 despite its limited resources, as fatalities from the coronavirus continue a steady decline in the country.
Pakistan has registered some 3,000 COVID-19 cases and 40 fatalities over the past 24 hours, compared to nearly 8,000 daily cases and about 50 deaths just weeks ago. Since the pandemic began, Pakistan has registered 1,494,293 cases, including 29,917 deaths.
Cabinet Minister Faisal Javed Khan congratulated Gates for the award on Twitter, calling it “a well-deserved honor” for his “valuable, exceptional and extraordinary services fighting poverty, disease, and inequality around the world.”
Last year, the country reported only a single case of polio, in its remote southwestern Baluchistan province. Pakistan and Afghanistan are the only countries in the world where polio remains endemic. The disease can cause partial paralysis in children.