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Home Health India cuts some ties with Gates Foundation

The Indian government has announced a partial cutting of ties with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and has increased funds to its own immunisation programmes, due to the foundation’s acknowledged ties to the pharmaceutical industry.

According to the foundation, it will no longer receive grant money beyond this month.

The foundation has contributed more than US$3.15 billion to GAVI between 2009 and 2015.

GAVI is a global vaccine alliance that has a representative of big pharmaceutical companies on its board, including the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers & Associations (IFPMA).

IFPMA represents more than 55 members of national industry associations, including big pharma giants such as Johnson & Johnson, Novartis, Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck & Co, Sanofi Pasteur, and Sanofi-Aventis among others.

India has replaced funds currently obtained by the foundation with partial funding from the health industry.

India's decision comes in the context of a broad clampdown on the influence of foreign entities on key areas of policy making, particularly the implementation of government programmes.

Last year, India ordered the dismissal of several health experts working on public welfare schemes, once it had been proven that they had received foreign funding.

The particular body that is now receiving more government funding is the Immunisation Technical Support Unit (ITSU), which had been receiving funds from the Gates Foundation for years.

ITSU provides strategy and monitoring advice for New Delhi's massive immunisation programme that covers about 27 million infants each year.

A key unit of ITSU that assisted the country's apex body on immunisation will now be funded by the government as it felt there was a need to independently manage it, senior health ministry official Soumya Swaminathan told Reuters.

"There was a perception that an external agency is funding it, so there could be influence," Swaminathan said on Wednesday.

She, however, stressed there were no cases where influence found had been detected and the decision was only in part prompted by a wider perception about foreign funding of the programme.

Originally, Swaminathan had said ITSU would be funded in full by the government.

However, in what appears to be backflip, Swaminathan now says that other operations at ITSU – such as tracking vaccination coverage and logistics management - will continue to receive funding from the Gates Foundation.

Critics have in the past said that the Gates Foundation should not have any association with the program due to apparent conflicts of interest.

The Indian government says its immunisation programme helps protect millions of children from life-threatening illnesses such as measles and polio, and is crucial for public health.

Thus far, the programme is said to have entirely eradicated polio. However, more than a million Indian children still die every year before reaching the age of five.

"The government must ensure that universal immunisation does not suffer in any way," said Keshav Desiraju, a former federal health secretary.

The Gates Foundation has enjoyed the benefits of a good relationship with the Modi government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Bill Gates in November 2016.

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