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HEALTH: Vaccine targets world's biggest child-killer

NAIROBI/KILIFI, 14 February 2011 (IRIN) - An estimated 700,000 deaths could be averted by 2015 with the widespread use of a vaccine against pneumonia and other pneumococcal diseases that are the world's biggest child-killer.

More than half a million children younger than five die from pneumococcal disease every year, according to the UN World Health Organization (WHO). It accounts for 18 percent of child deaths in developing countries.

"The global introduction of pneumococcal vaccination marks a historic milestone in global health," Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO's assistant regional director for Africa, said at a press briefing ahead of the launch in Kenya on 14 February. "This single vaccine offers the world an unprecedented opportunity to reduce child mortality significantly."

The GAVI Alliance plans to roll out the new vaccine - tailored for strains of pneumococcal disease prevalent in developing countries - to 19 countries within one year and to more than 40 countries by 2015. A few, including Nicaragua, Sierra Leone and Yemen, have already successfully introduced the vaccine into their routine immunization programmes.

A "report card" issued in 2010 by the US-based International Vaccine Access Centre at Johns Hopkins University found that efforts to treat and prevent pneumonia were falling short in the 15 countries responsible for three-quarters of the world's annual deaths from the disease. A significant factor was lack of access to new and effective vaccines.

According to Benjamin Tsofa of the Kenya Medical Research Institute in Kilifi, along Kenya's Indian Ocean coast, the emergence of penicillin-resistant and multi-drug resistant pneumococcal strains means the vaccine's rollout is timely.

"In addition to killing thousands of children annually, the disease causes severe financial difficulties and emotional burdens for families and communities, most of whom never have sufficient funding to treat their affected children," he told IRIN. "Given the high burden of under-five mortality associated with the disease, control efforts are critical to achieving the Millennium Development Goals."

At US$3.50 per dose, the vaccine being issued in developing countries is about 90 percent cheaper than in the developed world. GAVI and its partner countries will co-finance the rollout, with governments in the poorest income bracket chipping in $0.15 per dose.

A 2007 study published in The Lancet medical journal projected that accelerated uptake of pneumococcal vaccine in the world's poorest countries would be highly cost-effective and substantially reduce childhood mortality.

Challenges

Helen Evans, GAVI Alliance interim CEO, said while participating countries had a shown strong commitment to ensuring quick and universal rollout of the vaccine, many of these countries would need to step up their health system capacity to achieve this.

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"The further we get from big cities, the more challenging the rollout is; the vaccine requires refrigeration and we have seen issues with the cold chain, for example, in areas where electricity is a problem," she told IRIN. "Access to families in remote areas can also be difficult."

GAVI's ambitious plans to roll out this and other vaccines for major killer diseases is threatened by a funding gap of US$3.7 billion over the next five years.

"If the money comes slower than anticipated, then the rollout will be slower than anticipated," said Evans. "We are hopeful, however, that donors have a good understanding of what a good investment vaccination is."

According to Simon Bland, head of the UK Department for International Development in Kenya, immunization is an easy sell to donors because the results of the programmes are clear in terms of the numbers of children immunized and estimated deaths or disease cases averted.

"We need governments to maintain their commitment to providing the vaccines, for the media to raise awareness about them and then we will need to find the resources to finance the rollout to 40 countries by 2015," he told IRIN.

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Theme (s): Aid Policy, Children, Early Warning, Education, Health & Nutrition,

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]

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