(The Feb. 8 story adds official clarification that ties partially, not fully, cut in paragraph 1, 4, 7)
By Aditya Kalra
NEW DELHI A group backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that works on India's immunization programs will now be partially funded by the health ministry, a government official said, a move in part prompted by fears foreign donors could influence policy making.
The decision is seen as part of India's broader clampdown on non-governmental organizations to assert control over decision making in key policy areas. Last year, India ordered the dismissal of dozens of foreign-funded health experts working on public welfare schemes.
The Gates Foundation has for years funded the Immunization Technical Support Unit (ITSU), which provides strategy and monitoring advice for New Delhi's massive immunization program that covers about 27 million infants each year.
A key unit of ITSU that assisted the country's apex body on immunization will now be funded by the government as it felt there was a need to completely manage it on its own, 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.
Swaminathan, however, stressed there were no instances of influence found and the decision was only in part prompted by a wider perception about foreign funding of the program.
Other operations at ITSU – such as tracking vaccination coverage and logistics management - would continue to receive funding from the Gates Foundation, she said. She had earlier said the entire ITSU funding would move to the health ministry.
A spokeswoman for the foundation said its grant for the ITSU ends this month. "We are in advanced stages of discussion with the ministry on the contours of the next phase of technical support," she said.
Critics have in the past raised concerns the foundation should not have any association with the program due to apparent conflicts of interest. That's because the foundation also backs GAVI, a global vaccine alliance that counts big pharmaceutical companies as its partners.
India's immunization program vaccinates children to shield them from life-threatening conditions such as measles and polio, and is viewed by experts as crucial for improving public health.
A key win has been the successful eradication of polio, but more than a million Indian children still die every year before reaching the age of five.
"The government must ensure that universal immunization does not suffer in any way," said Keshav Desiraju, a former federal health secretary.
BMGF, the charity funded by the personal wealth of Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, has enjoyed good relations with the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
(Reporting by Aditya Kalra; Editing by Douglas Busvine)