At the forefront of a vaccine revolution

2012-04-29 06:45

There is an unwritten rule that it can take 15 years or longer between the introduction of new life-saving vaccines in rich countries and their widespread use in the poorest nations. It’s a tragic time-lag that has cost the lives of millions of children.

But national celebrations in Ghana this week to mark the introduction of two new vaccines highlight how this shameful gap is rapidly being closed.

It is another exciting chapter in a story of leadership – and partnership – transforming health in the developing world.

Ghana already has an impressive immunisation programme. But it is determined to go further by protecting against the world’s two biggest killers of children – severe diarrhoea and pneumonia.

So this week it is introducing both the rotavirus vaccine which protects against diarrhoea and the pneumococcal vaccine which targets pneumonia. No other African country has introduced these vaccines simultaneously and Ghana has every reason to be proud.

But what is also significant is that these sophisticated vaccines are being introduced so soon after their first use in the developed world.

The 13-strain pneumococcal vaccine, for example, was first used in Europe only a couple of years ago. Even more remarkable, it is already protecting children in 14 other developing countries.

This is hugely important. The protective power of vaccines is vital in every society, rich or poor. Their effect is even greater in developing countries because the quality of basic health services varies so dramatically.

Yet until recently, the countries which most needed these life-saving vaccines were all too often the least able to offer protection to their citizens.

Developing nations could not obtain the vaccines in the quantity they needed at a price they could afford. The result was not just millions of unnecessary deaths but a major brake on economic and social development.

Thanks to the efforts of the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI) – partnership of international agencies such as the World Health Organisation, Unicef, the World Bank, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, governments, vaccine producers, businesses and philanthropic foundations – the position has been transformed.

Huge strides have been made in lowering vaccine prices and producing quality vaccines in mass quantities. New producers in developing countries provide more competition and guarantee supplies.

Increased support from donors help these efforts and developing countries have made vaccination a major health priority, putting in place systems to deliver immunisation programmes and helping fund the cost through their own resources.

Almost all low-income countries in the GAVI Alliance are now helping meet the cost of their vaccines.

Since the GAVI Alliance was set up in 2000, some 325 million additional children have been vaccinated against a wide variety of diseases, helping prevent more than five million early deaths.

Immunisation rates in the world’s poorest countries have risen to an average of 80%. Ghana vaccinates 94%of its children – higher than in some richer countries.

The effect goes far beyond the immediate benefits to children and their families. Healthier children can learn more effectively. They lead more productive lives. It is estimated that a one-year increase in life expectancy increases labour productivity by 4%.

And compared to the cost of treating a disease and the loss of economic productivity over the long-term, vaccines provide tremendous value for money. They are easy to administer and, in most cases, offer permanent immunity.

I have worked in this field as a doctor and scientist for more than three decades. I don’t think there has ever been a time when vaccines present greater opportunities.

We can now vaccinate against the main causes of liver and cervical cancer and we could even be close to effective vaccines to combat malaria and eventually HIV/Aids.

The vaccine introductions in Ghana show just what can be achieved through commitment, leadership and partnership. But we can’t rest while 1.7 million children – one every 20 seconds – still die every year from diseases which we can prevent.

We must step up our efforts so the vaccine revolution reaches every child, everywhere.

» Berkley is chief executive of the GAVI Alliance, a public-private partnership focused on increasing access to immunisation in poor countries

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