In Africa, a Vaccine Against the 'Silent Killer'

PHOTO A nurse gives one of the first pneumococcal vaccine shots in Africa to a child in Nairobi, Kenya, Feb. 14, 2011.
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When people in the United States hear the word pneumonia, they tend to think of the elderly and hospital infections. But this "silent killer" is actually the No. 1 cause of death for kids in the developing world, killing more children than AIDS, malaria and measles combined.

A new vaccine could dramatically decrease the number of pneumonia deaths by immunizing against pneumococcal disease, the most common cause of pneumonia. Pneumococcal disease currently takes the lives of more than a million people every year -- including more than half a million children before their fifth birthday -- according to the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization.

Today, Kenya is the first African country to roll-out this pneumococcal vaccine, which is specially tailored to meet the needs of children in developing countries. Nicaragua, Guyana, Yemen and Sierra Leone will also be using the vaccine.

The speed at which it was released sets the pneumococcal vaccine apart from the crowd.

Normally, it takes 10 to 15 years for a vaccine to reach poor nations. The new pneumococcal vaccine, however, was used in Nicaragua in 2010, the same year as the United States. Considering that 90 percent of the 2 million child pneumonia deaths each year occur in the developing world, this is a major accomplishment with potential to save thousands of lives, according to experts.

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The vaccine launch was engineered by GAVI, a public-private body that brings together United Nations agencies, the World Bank, philanthropists, the vaccine industry and research agencies to improve children's health through immunization.

Nearly $3 billion pledged by Italy, the United Kingdom, Canada, the Russian Federation, Norway, GAVI and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation allowed the vaccine rollout, using a simple but novel approach. Donors committed money in advance, so that vaccine manufacturers would have a financial incentive to make the vaccine, and also keep the price of the vaccines low -- $3.50 for governments in the developing world, as opposed to $70 in the United States.

More Money Needed to Save Lives From Pneumococcal Disease

But plans to bring the vaccine to an additional 40 countries by 2015 are still uncertain.

GAVI needs an additional $3.7 billion over the next five years to continue supporting immunization programs in the world's poorest countries. Still, GAVI is optimistic. Helen Evans, interim CEO of the GAVI Alliance, said in a statement "routine vaccination is one of the most cost-effective public health investments a government can make, and we are counting on our donors to continue their strong backing for our lifesaving mission."

This is a year of innovation for vaccine financing.

Through a similar financing model, MenAfriVac, a vaccine against the meningitis that has killed up to 25,000 people a year during epidemics in Africa, has been used to vaccinate 19.5 million people since September 2010.

And today, Kenya's President Mwai Kibaki joined parents, health workers, ambassadors and donors in Nairobi to witness hundreds of children being immunized as part of the government of Kenya's formal introduction of the pneumococcal vaccine to its routine immunization program.

"The rapid rollout of new-generation pneumococcal vaccines shows how innovation and technology can be harnessed, at affordable prices, to save lives in the developing world. The payback, as measured by reduced childhood mortality, will be enormous," said Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the World Health Organization.

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