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UAE president expands fund to fight tropical diseases

Co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum 2023 Reuters/Thomas Mukoya
Co-founder of Microsoft, Bill Gates, with Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan at the Reaching the Last Mile Forum 2023

Reaching the Last Mile – a global philanthropic health initiative by UAE president Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al Nahyan – has increased the size of its flagship fund five-fold to $500 million, with $340.2 million raised to date, following donations made during Cop28.  

The 10-year RLM Fund was set up in 2017, in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to fight neglected tropical diseases.

Pledged donations came from Sheikh Mohamed, the Gates Foundation and the British government, among others. The size of the initial fund was $100 million and the UAE’s support came directly from Sheikh Mohamed. 

On Sunday, at the first health-themed day of any Cop summit, Reaching the Last Mile pledged an additional $100 million to grow the RLM Fund. Its commitment is matched by $100 million from the Gates Foundation. Further donations increased the size of the fund to $340.2 million, representing just over two-thirds of its new $500 million target. 

New commitments included $50 million from The Carter Center, $50 million from the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, $10 million from Sightsavers, $5 million from Delta Philanthropies, $500,000 from the Sierra Leone government and almost $500,000 from Abu Dhabi National Insurance Company, among others.

The fund’s expansion will increase its reach from seven countries to 39 across Africa and Yemen. It aims to eliminate two neglected tropical diseases, or NTDs – lymphatic filariasis and onchocerciasis (river blindness) – from Africa, potentially improving the lives of over 350 million people.  

NTDs are a group of 20 communicable diseases which, despite being largely preventable and treatable, are responsible for 170,000 preventable deaths each year, with Africa accounting for almost 40 percent of the total, according to Reaching the Last Mile and the Gates Foundation. 

They particularly impact people living in poor and vulnerable communities, including those hardest hit by the damaging effects of climate change. 

“Climate change is already affecting the patterns of infectious diseases and risking the tremendous gains countries have made to date,” Sheikh Theyab bin Mohamed Al Nahyan, member of Abu Dhabi Executive Council and a representative of Reaching the Last Mile, said. 

Reaching the Last Mile helps provide money for healthcare in poorer African nationsGSK/Marcus Perkins
Reaching the Last Mile helps provide money for healthcare in poorer African nations

Over the past five years, the RLM Fund says it has provided over 100 million treatments, trained 1.3 million health workers and established nine laboratories. It has also helped to interrupt the transmission of river blindness in Niger. 

Katey Einterz Owen, director of NTGs and vaccine development at the Gates Foundation, said: “Our hope is that these latest pledges will close the funding gap to help expedite a WHO target to eliminate at least one NTD by 2030 and reduce the number of people requiring treatment for NTDs by 90 percent by 2030.”

Health is one of the thematic pillars of Cop28. At the summit, 123 countries backed the Cop28 UAE official climate and health declaration – a joint initiative of the Cop28 presidency, World Health Organization (WHO) and UAE Ministry of Health and Prevention, aimed at protecting people’s health from climate risks. 

“[Climate change] has become one of the greatest threats to human health in the 21st century,” said Cop28 president Sultan Al Jaber. 

At the Reaching the Last Mile forum on Sunday, donors pledged a total of $772 million to help combat neglected tropical diseases – including the amount committed to the RLF Fund.

Cop28 saw other health-related pledges totalling around $1 billion from governments, banks, NGOs and other institutions. 

However, levels of climate funding directed towards global health are still too low and “need to be multiplied by 10 at least”, the WHO’s director for environment, climate change and health, Maria Neira, told the summit

“We need massive investment to prepare our health systems to be climate resistant,” she said.  

The health-related costs associated with climate change will rise to between $2 billion and $4 billion annually by 2030, added Cop28 director-general Majid Al Suwaidi.

This article, originally published on December 4, was updated on December 7 to reflect the fact that $500 million is the new target set for the Reaching the Last Mile Fund, with $340.2 million pledged in total to date.

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