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Bill Gates attends the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Riyadh, on April 28, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

Riyadh: Hajj pilgrims heading to Saudi Arabia in June will get a health boost under a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-supported disease control drive that’s part of a broader effort to eradicate polio.

The Gates Foundation said on Sunday it will open a regional office in Riyadh to coordinate a new partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Health to improve disease surveillance and sanitation, and assist with the manufacturing of lower-cost vaccines to improve the health and safety of millions of Muslims attending one of the world’s largest religious mass gatherings.

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Multiple polio outbreaks have been linked to past pilgrimages to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. The crippling disease, the cause of life-threatening paralysis for thousands of years, came tantalizingly close to being eradicated in 2022, before new outbreaks were seeded in Africa and a man was paralyzed in New York that year.

A reduction in cases so far this year has bolstered optimism for completing the Global Polio Eradication Initiative by 2026. Saudi Arabia pledged $500 million over the next five years to the initiative’s 36-year-old mission, the Gates Foundation said in an emailed statement.

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The funding brings the financial commitments to the initiative announced at a special meeting of the World Economic Forum in Riyadh to more than $620 million.

Saudi Arabia will also contribute $100 million to the Lives and Livelihoods Fund, the largest multilateral development initiative in the Middle East, which supports primary health care and efforts to eliminate preventable infectious diseases, the Gates Foundation said.

“Polio is a horrific disease that deserves to be in the history books once and for all,” said Bill Gates, who co-chairs the foundation with ex-wife Melinda French Gates. “I am proud to see the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, together with partners across the Middle East, step up to help deliver more polio vaccines, measles immunizations, and other vital health services to millions of children every year.”