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Childhood vaccines at all-time high, but poorest 20 per cent still lack access – UN

Childhood vaccines at all-time high, but poorest 20 per cent still lack access – UN

Reversing a downward trend, childhood immunization rates are now at their highest ever, but due to a funding gap of at least $1 billion life-saving vaccines still do not reach some 24 million children – one in five born each year – who are most at risk in the poorest countries, according to a new United Nations report released today.

“The stakes are high. WHO [UN World Health Organization] has estimated that if all the vaccines now available against childhood diseases were widely adopted, and if countries could raise vaccine coverage to a global average of 90 per cent by 2015 an additional two million deaths a year could be prevented among children under five years old,” it says.

The report, The State of the World’s Vaccines and Immunization, released jointly by WHO, the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Bank, notes that more infants are being immunized today than ever before – a record 106 million in 2008 – according to new data. But it calls on donor nations to address a funding gap in the poorest nations and communities where preventable diseases take their deadliest toll.

“With the exception of safe water, no other modality, not even antibiotics, has had such a major effect on mortality reduction,” it declares.

The gains made are impressive but major efforts are needed to ensure that they are protected during the current global economic crisis, and development of new vaccines that could save millions of additional lives every year must not slow down, WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, World Bank Managing Director Graeme Wheeler and UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman write in a joint foreword.

“They need to be sustained and improved. New and improved vaccines are urgently needed to prevent the unacceptable toll of sickness and deaths from diseases such as malaria, tuberculosis, and AIDS. Continued investments are essential to ensure the breakthroughs needed in the research and development of these next-generation vaccines,” they add.

“Experience shows that economic crises can lead to government cuts in social sector spending, a decline in international development assistance, an increase in poverty, and an upsurge in deaths among children under five years old. This must not be allowed to happen again.”

The release of new evidence of success in overall global immunization coincides with the pandemic influenza (H1N1) immunization campaigns by many countries, underscoring the unparalleled role of vaccines in preventing communicable diseases and the challenges of reaching the most vulnerable communities.

“The influenza pandemic draws attention to the promise and dynamism of vaccine development today,” Dr. Chan said on the report’s launch. “Yet it reminds us once again of the obstacles to bringing the benefits of science to people in the poorest nations. We must overcome the divide that separates rich from poor – between those who get life-saving vaccines, and those who don’t.”

Ms. Veneman noted that measles deaths worldwide fell by 74 per cent between 2000 and 2007, with vaccinations playing an important role. “Such progress must inspire new efforts to immunize children around the globe against life-threatening diseases,” she said.

The report attributes the reversal of the downward trend in great part to developing countries that made good use of the GAVI Alliance – a vaccine-financing partnership that includes WHO, UNICEF, the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Since 2000, this has increased the introduction of new and underused vaccines, which now reach more than 200 million children in developing countries.

It notes that the global vaccine market has tripled over the last eight years, reaching more than $17 billion in revenue, due to rising demand via UN procuring agencies and a renaissance in vaccine discovery and development. Significantly, manufacturers in developing countries are now meeting 86 per cent of global demand for traditional vaccines, such as those against measles, whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria.

“We have seen a dramatic turnaround in the availability of vaccines in even the poorest countries,” Mr. Wheeler said. “Yet the international community, together with the countries themselves, must ensure that new and existing technologies actually reach the most vulnerable populations, especially children.”