DAVOS (Switzerland): Microsoft Corp's founder Bill Gates pledged $900 million to fight tuberculosis on Friday, kick-starting a $31-billion funding drive against a disease which kills one person every 15 seconds.

Tuberculosis has reached alarming proportions in Africa and other poor countries, where co-infection with HIV/AIDS makes a deadly combination.

''This is a very tough disease. It is going to take all of us - private sector, the pharmaceutical companies, philanthropy and Governments in countries that have the disease - to participate as well,'' Mr. Gates told reporters at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo and British Finance Minister Gordon Brown called on world leaders to back the new World Health Organisation action plan, which aims to treat 50 million people and prevent 14 million deaths worldwide over the next 10 years.

WHO believes the project can check tuberculosis globally but full implementation would cost an estimated $56 billion over the next decade, including $47 billion for controlling the disease and $9 billion for research into new drugs and vaccines. That represents an overall increase of $31 billion over currently projected funding.

Marcos Espinal of the WHO said the first goal was to increase drug provision, since tuberculosis - which is spread by coughing and sneezing - was a curable disease in the vast majority of cases.

Most of the 2 million people who die of it each year live in the developing world. New therapies are badly needed, too, because strains of tuberculosis are now circulating which are resistant to existing drugs, while the only vaccine available does not work very well.

Optimism on India

Mr. Gates expressed optimism on India and China as they were showing tremendous changes in technology. He continuously referred to them as regions where tremendous change was taking place.

''While China has become the largest broadband country in the world,'' Mr. Gates said, adding ''Indian market was growing and now faces the challenge of taking the latest technology to the rural areas.'' He said technology was also being used for disease reduction and new products. He elaborated on how the cell phone had transformed from an ear instrument to giving access to the Internet and many more functions.

Mr. Gates said though India and China may not be paying for software, sales in these two countries was increasing and Microsoft was very much there to stay. - Reuters, PTI