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Bill Gates, co-chair of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, speaks during a discussion on innovation hosted by Reuters in Washington, U.S., April 18, 2016. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

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By Aditya Kalra

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - A group backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that works on India's immunisation programmes will now be 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 organisations 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 immunisation programme that covers about 27 million infants each year.

It will now be funded by the government which felt there was a need to completely manage the crucial programme 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 programme. The unit will continue to exist, she said.

A spokeswoman for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) 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 BMGF should not have any association with the programme due to apparent conflicts of interest. That's because BMGF also backs GAVI, a global vaccine alliance that counts big pharmaceutical companies as its partners.

India's immunisation programme 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 immunisation 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)

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