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HEALTH: 10-Billion-Dollar Vaccine Pledge by Gates Hailed

Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON, Jan 29 2010 (IPS) - The pledge by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to provide 10 billion dollars over 10 years on vaccines aimed at reducing child mortality in the world’s poorest countries was hailed by global health organisations around the world Friday.

The commitment, which will more than double the 4.5 billion dollars the foundation spent on vaccine development and distribution over the past decade, was announced Friday at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland.

“We must make this the decade of vaccines,” Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft who moved to full-time work as the co-chairman of the foundation last year, declared in his announcement.

“Vaccines already save and improve millions of lives in developing countries. Innovation will make it possible to save more children than ever before,” he added, noting that the new contribution could save the lives of some 7.6 million children under the age of five over the next decade, and many more if a malaria vaccine currently being tested proves successful.

“Today’s announcement is a major boost for global health and vaccines,” said Orin Levine, executive director of the International Vaccine Access Centre (IVAC) at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore.

“The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has once again set the bar for results-driven aid. By aiming at pneumonia, diarrhoea, and malaria, the funding will save millions of lives,” he noted.

Levine added that donor countries and multilateral institutions, as well as developing countries themselves, should also increase their commitment to the development distribution of vaccines.

The latter point was echoed by Dr. Margaret Chan, the director-general of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Geneva.

Calling the Gates pledge “unprecedented,” she said that it “is absolutely crucial that both governments and the private sector step up efforts to provide live-saving vaccines to children who need them most.”

“(W)e can take immunisation to the next level, with the expanded uptake of new vaccines against major killers such as pneumonia and rotavirus diarrhoea,” she said. “An additional two million deaths in children under five years could be prevented by 2015 through widespread use of new vaccines and a 10-percent increase in global vaccination coverage.”

The foundation’s announcement came on the tenth anniversary of the creation of another Gates initiative, the Washington-based Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunisation (GAVI).

GAVI works with private-sector companies, donor countries, multilateral agencies and dozens of poor countries to accelerate the use of under-used and new vaccines and facilitate their financing and dissemination to those communities most in need.

Since its establishment, GAVI helped reverse what had become flagging immunisation rates in poor countries, reaching an estimated 250 million children who might not otherwise have been vaccinated against deadly childhood diseases, including hepatitis B and yellow fever.

Some five million lives have been saved as a result of its efforts, according to its CEO, Julian Lob-Levyt.

That has helped prospects for the world to achieve the U.N.’s fourth Millennium Development Goal (MDG) set the same year as the Gates Foundation helped launch GAVI: a two-thirds reduction in child mortality by the year 2015.

Indeed, the most recent WHO data show that global vaccination rates have reached all-time highs, and that the percentage of children who received the basic DTP3 (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) vaccine in the world’s poorest countries jumped from 66 percent to a record 79 percent between 2000 and 2009. One goal of the additional Gates funding is to increase coverage to 90 percent.

At the same time, the number of people who died of measles worldwide fell by 77 percent between 2000 and 2008, and, in Africa, measles deaths fell by 92 percent, according to WHO.

“Vaccines are a miracle – with just a few doses, they can prevent deadly diseases for a lifetime,” said Melinda Gates, who added that vaccines have become the foundation’s “number-one priority because we’ve seen firsthand their incredible impact on children’s lives.”

“We stand on the threshold of a new decade with very exciting prospects,” Lob-Levyt said in Davos Friday. “For the first time in history, we have the opportunity to deliver new life-saving vaccines against the two biggest childhood killers in the world: pneumonia and diarrhoea.”

The New England Journal of Medicine reported just this week on especially promising results of new vaccines for rotavirus, a disease that causes severe diarrhoia and kills an estimated 527,000 children a year world-wide, about 230,000 of whom are African, according to the WHO.

In tests in South Africa and Malawi, one vaccine was found to reduce the incidence of severe diarrhoia by more than 60 percent.

While storage and shipment requirements of these vaccines pose major challenges to their widespread dissemination, they could save between 225,000 and 325,000 lives a year, according to the foundation which said it hopes, with the help of new funding, to provide them to over half of the children who need it.

The foundation’s new spending will also focus on making effective vaccines for pneumococcal diseases – which kill some 800,000 children a year in the developing world – much more widely available in poor countries, while a vaccine against meningitis, another major child-killer, is expected to be introduced later this year, according to Gates.

Gates told National Public Radio (NPR) Friday that some of the foundation’s new money will also be devoted to work on developing vaccines against AIDS and tuberculosis.

Vaccines have made up about 20 percent of the foundation’s annual contributions over the past decade. With new gifts by both Gates and legendary investor Warren Buffett, they will be about 30 percent of the foundation’s total annual spending.

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