Global Vaccine Campaign for Top Baby Killer ‘Unprecedented’

BY Talea Miller  November 10, 2011 at 4:51 PM EDT

The number one killer of young children around the world isn’t malaria, measles or HIV. It’s pneumonia, and each year more children die from the lung infection than from those three, much higher-profile diseases combined.

A global push to bring a vaccine against the bacterial cause of pneumonia to communities that need it most is ramping up quickly, expanding to nearly 60 countries in the next five years.

On Friday’s NewsHour, Ray Suarez reports from Nicaragua, the first country to receive the vaccine as part of the new campaign, and examines the market corporate-government-NGO agreement that made it possible for poor countries to afford it. Watch a preview below:

At least 3 million child deaths could be prevented in the next decade through the global vaccine rollout, according to a new analysis published Thursday in the journal of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene by health experts from Children’s Hospital Boston and Johns Hopkins University, among others.

With Nicaragua as the forerunner, some fifteen low-income countries have already received the pneumococcal vaccine, which targets the bacterium that can cause pneumonia They obtain the vaccines through partnerships with GAVI, the Global Alliance for Vaccines and Immunization. The organization helped negotiate a 90 percent price reduction from vaccine manufacturers in 2010, bringing the cost down to $3.50 a dose.

The cut was possible through a new funding mechanism called an advance market commitment, in which manufacturers were guaranteed a certain market through GAVI as the collective bargainer. The arrangement builds incentive for the drug companies to lower the price and expand production.

And the scale up has been rapid. More new research released this week by Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health called the rate of the rollout and its quick expansion “unprecedented.”

But the desire to speed the vaccine to countries with low resources is not without complications.

Countries need to have a certain level of health infrastructure in place to provide the vaccine, and some NGOs including the charity group Merlin say that excludes some of the poorest countries, in greatest need, from being able to enter the agreement. Others, including Oxfam, argue GAVI needs to renegotiate even lower prices for the vaccines to ensure the campaigns are sustainable.

Countries that do qualify, such as Nicaragua, face their own challenges strengthening infrastructure to meet the needs of a large scale immunization campaign. Vaccines need to be kept refrigerated, for example, so equipping clinics or adding to existing equipment can be difficult in poor, rural settings.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins also emphasized that the focus on the vaccine should not take away from efforts to treat pneumonia. Prompt treatment of pneumonia can save lives, and does on a regular basis in developed countries. Access to the necessary antibiotics is wildly uneven, the report said, and in some countries only 5 percent of the population can get needed treatment.

“Vaccines and antibiotic treatments are like two safety nets that work together,” warned Orin Levine, professor and executive director at the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins University. “Vaccines provide a first line of defense, while antibiotics ensure that children who get through the first net don’t die.”

Read a reporter’s notebook from the field from Ray Suarez on the impact of the vaccine. Watch the full report on Friday’s NewsHour, or at our global health page.