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Gates turns focus to global health giving

Microsoft made Bill Gates the richest man in the world, now he’s leaving the chairman’s seat to focus on giving his fortune away.
File photo of Bill Gates and his wife in Mozambique
Bill Gates and his wife Melinda visit the Manhica Health Research Centre in Mozambique on Sept. 21, 2003.Juda Ngwenya / Reuters file
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Microsoft made Bill Gates the richest man in the world, now he’s quitting his day job to focus on giving his fortune away.

In announcing his plans to withdraw from day-to-day duties at the company he co-founded,  Gates said he didn’t realize when he started his charity work how much potential there was for addressing some of the world's greatest problems, particularly diseases in developing countries.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, based in Seattle, is now the world’s largest philanthropy — with an endowment of $29 billion.

Since its early days as the William H. Gates Foundation, started in 1994, the foundation has committed $10.5 billion in grants aimed at global health, education and poverty. Bill Gates and his wife Melinda French Gates are co-chairs of the nonprofit with his father, William H. Gates Sr.

The biggest chunk of money — $6 billion so far — has gone to Gates' top priority, health issues that disproportionately impact the poor. The foundation has given $1.1 billion for HIV/AIDS and $1.9 billion to immunization programs including malaria prevention.

A turning point in Gates’ life was when he learned that a half-million children die each year around the world from rotavirus, which is preventable with a simple vaccine.

“Melinda and I had assumed that if there were vaccines and treatments that could save lives, governments would be doing everything they could to get them to the people who needed them, but they weren’t,” he said in a 2005 speech to the World Health Assembly in Geneva. “We couldn’t escape the brutal conclusion that — in our lives today — some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves, ‘This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.’”

The foundation is considered a leader in international health, especially in the fight against HIV, malaria and tuberculosis — three of the world's top killers.

Gates has waged war on global health causes with grants so huge they've set the agenda for many research and public health institutions. And in characteristic Gates fashion, his vision banks on solutions based on science and technology.

“I am optimistic that in the next decade, people’s thinking will evolve on the question of health inequity. People will finally accept that the death of a child in the developing world is just as tragic as the death of a child in the developed world. And the expanding capacities of science will give us the power to act on that conviction," he told the World Health Assembly.

The foundation's representatives declined to talk about the announcement, but CEO Patty Stonesifer said in a press release: "The foundation's staff and leadership benefit greatly from Bill and Melinda's continued and growing involvement in our work. Together, they set the strategic direction and provide deep and thoughtful counsel on what we're learning, how we're developing and implementing solutions, and how we're measuring results. They also play a critical role in drawing attention to the issues we're working on with partners from around the world."