Bill Gates has shifted from computers to vaccines, who knew?

My trip to the World Health Organization’s Annual World Health Assembly and why Bill Gates was in attendance as well.


The WHO's World Health Assembly
The WHO’s World Health Assembly

On May 17, 2011 the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted its annual World Health Assembly in Geneva. Lucky for me, I was able to attend, given my status as a UN intern! Normally, I attend conferences that have an environmental component, but in the spirit of academic inquiry I decided to learn about a topic I knew little about, vaccines. I must admit that for me the subject matter is not incredibly thrilling; however what I did find intriguing was the speaker the WHO had invited this year; William Henry “Bill” Gates III, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Mr. Gates is quite an interesting man, he is a billionaire 50 times over yet has donated most of his wealth to his foundation. What on earth could this foundation be doing with all that money?! Well for starters, he would like to eradicate polio from the face of the earth. In his address, Gates called on all 193 member states to make vaccines a central focus of their health systems.

All in all, it was one of those UN-like speeches that set high standards, that many believed could not be reached, and that needed further and strengthened commitments from global leaders and nations. He was surprisingly well spoken (for a science geek, I believe I have the right to say that as a geek myself…) and conveyed a succinct and powerful message to the audience.

But all I could think about as Gates pushed more aggressive vaccination development was that this would mean more people. More people that needed to be fed, clothed, etc. Can the world support 10 million more people by 2020 as Gates predicted? I really don’t mean to sound uncaring or selfish, but we have reached carrying capacity on our earth, there is no more room. Shouldn’t we focus on conserving the scarce resources we have left, not create more humans to destroy or consume? But I suppose that is why I am at the environment school and he is at the WHO.

So now I feel like a bad person, and a bit confused but I am glad I went. It is so important to take this time I have here in Geneva and really develop my knowledge of international issues, such as vaccines. Hopefully the next conference won’t leave me feeling like an anti-humanitarian…

2 thoughts on “Bill Gates has shifted from computers to vaccines, who knew?

  1. Rebecca,

    I am an incoming first year to Duke’s MEM program this fall and am enjoying learning about what current students are doing with their time this summer. I too am interested in environmental economics and policy, but with a particular interest in biodiversity conservation in the developing world.

    I have considered your concern over the ‘carrying capacity’ of the earth quite a bit. For starters, and I could be wrong, but I don’t believe there is any scientific evidence as to what the human carrying capacity of the earth really is. I had always believed the world to be overpopulated…7 billion people just sounds like too many! A few months ago, National Geographic ran an issue focused on human population. Typically, I find their charts and graphs to be far too complicated and confusing to grasp from the outset, but in this issue, one struck my eye. Based on the size of the average human being, they demonstrated that every single human being on the planet could, if standing shoulder to shoulder, fit within the city limits of Los Angeles. This got me thinking…are we really taking up too much physical space on earth? Or has our human footprint expanded so much that it requires more of the earth’s surface to meet our growing needs? If we could learn to live more efficiently, and within the sustainable means of the earth’s resources, I now believe that we could comfortably feed, house, and provide for 7 billion people. And of course if we could could find collaborative ways to provide for 7 billion people, then we would in turn alleviate poverty which has a direct correlation to population growth. Now, how to go about doing that? Well….that’s where the UN and its 193 member states come in.

    Best of luck to you this summer and I look forward to hopefully meeting you this fall!

    Christina Van Winkle

    1. Hey Christina,
      So sorry it has taken me so long to reply to your post and really great points, life has been a little hectic here in Geneva.

      I agree with you that when it gets down to the number of humans and the square footage (or whatever metric normally used) of the earth, it seems reasonable that 7 million could live “comfortably”. But I really think that that depends on your image or idea of “comfort”. If all 7 million people on the planet lived like the average American, we would need around 5 earth’s ( But think of the millions (or maybe even billions) of people who want to live like the developed nations. Once they start demanding TVs, SUVs, airplane flights, heat/AC, etc. how many worlds will we need then. I really don’t know. When faced with these dilemmas I usually use the old “technology will save us” approach. But how far technology will get us is still unknown.

      On this subject I would strongly recommend this video ( is short and pretty cool!

      Thanks again for your comments and really interesting points, they got me thinking about this again and feeling a little depressed, haha, but c’est la vie for us environmentalists. I hope you have a great summer and I am looking forward to meeting you in a little over a month, can you believe it!


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