8 September 2022 – Melinda French Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, held a virtual roundtable with women health workers from the Pakistan Polio Programme.

This was the first such interaction between Ms. French Gates and the polio team in Pakistan and was moderated by Anita Zaidi, President of Gender Equality at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. 

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The polio workers shared with Ms French Gates their personal stories and motivations for being part of the programme, as well as how their teams work with families and local influencers to help protect children in their communities and migrant populations from poliovirus and other diseases. They also spoke to the importance of tailored approaches to addressing refusals and ensuring no child is missed from the protection of the polio vaccine.

“The trust we have built over time with families in our communities is what opens the door, and is key to our work in ensuring all children are protected against diseases like polio,” said one frontline worker.

Ms. French Gates thanked the women and their teams for their important work and for sharing their stories. She underscored that women have been crucial to the progress Pakistan has made against polio and that listening to women and increasing their involvement at all levels in the programme will be vital to achieving polio eradication.

Women are critical to building trust and relationships in communities and comprise over 62% of polio vaccinators in Pakistan. 

Ms. Sheeba Afghani, lead of the National Gender Group of the Pakistan Polio Programme, highlighted the Programme’s new initiative that is being rolled out to systematically listen to and learn from female frontline workers to help resolve challenges together in areas categorized at highest risk for polio. “For us to succeed in achieving a polio-free Pakistan, it is critical for the polio programme to really listen to all stakeholders and demonstrate compassion, including for those working on the frontlines as well as the communities they serve,” said Ms Afghani. She also noted the additional potential through this initiative to empower female workers through capacity-building to support their future pathways as well.

Ms. French Gates praised this initiative as a positive step toward recognizing the essential role of women in polio eradication efforts and accelerating progress toward this goal.

Participants on the call also discussed the recent rise in wild poliovirus cases in Pakistan and the work being done to protect more children from this preventable disease, as well as the polio programme’s support to relief efforts for the severe floods affecting large parts of the country. Ms. French Gates expressed her condolences for the families and communities affected by the floods. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation confirmed this week emergency support for disaster relief in Pakistan, including to support food, shelter, health and WASH efforts in flood-affected areas of Balochistan and Sindh.

Ms. French Gates reaffirmed the foundation’s commitment to working in partnership with Pakistan to end polio and improve the health and wellbeing of its people. 


Note for the Editor: Polio is a highly infectious disease caused by poliovirus mainly affecting children under the age of five years. It invades the nervous system and can cause paralysis or even death. While there is no cure for polio, vaccination is the most effective way to protect children from this disease. Repeated immunisations have protected millions of children from polio, allowing almost all countries in the world to become polio-free, besides the two endemic countries of Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

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