DR Congo + 2 more

Press briefing by UNICEF, Pan American Health Organization

News and Press Release
Originally published
At a Headquarters press briefing this afternoon, Andre Roberfroid, Deputy Executive Director for Programmes and Strategic Planning, United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), told correspondents that today, in New York and Davos, Switzerland, UNICEF was launching "The Children's Challenge", a new global alliance of business leaders, philanthropic foundations, development banks, United Nations agencies and national governments aimed at hastening universal childhood immunization. Mr. Roberfroid was joined at the briefing by Dr. Ciro de Quadros, Director of Vaccines and Immunization, Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).
Members of the alliance include the World Bank Group, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Mr. Roberfroid said the partnership was unusual because it would bring together for the first time all the stakeholders in the worldwide fight to conquer vaccine-preventable diseases. An alliance that featured governments, the pharmaceutical industry and donors in the private sector would make it possible to save the lives of more than 3 million children. "This can and will work", he said, "because we now have a chance to make existing vaccines fully available to the children of the world."

Mr. Roberfroid said that the two most important obstacles facing sufficient vaccine distribution were their cost and the capacity of the international community to meet those costs. But the initial contribution of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation -- $750 million over five years -- was a major step towards the goal of addressing those issues, he said. That generous donation was, by no means, the answer to all the problems the initiative would face, but it would serve as a call to other potential donors to join the important fight. "This is truly a first", he said.

Dr. Ciro de Quadros said that the development of vaccines that had eradicated the smallpox virus and polio was a testament to the fact that immunization was the most important and effective weapon in fighting the spread of disease. The importance of the alliance was "transcendental", he said, because while current health programmes reached about 74 per cent of the population, there were still nearly 25 million children born each year that did not receive the benefits of immunization. "This is a tremendous inequity", he said. There was also a tremendous gap in the number of vaccines used in the industrialized world and in the developing countries. It was a plain truth that the industrialized countries had access to 10 or 15 more vaccines and disease- preventable medicines than were available elsewhere. "We have to close that gap", he said "and we hope that this new global alliance will help."

The programme aimed at bringing vaccines from the shelves of the manufacturers in industrialized countries to the children in the field, he continued. There were three main windows of opportunity created by the initiative: the development of the infrastructure in some smaller countries to make vaccines available to the widest selection of people; creating partnerships between governments that would result in quicker distribution; and the enhancement of research and development techniques.

He added that the world today was also facing a unique crisis brought about by "orphaned diseases" -- malaria, tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, among others -- which lacked the sufficient financial investment that might one day lead to their eradication. It was hoped that, over the next 10 years, the initiative could bring the vaccines to the developing countries and that it would provide better research programmes to combat many more childhood diseases. "Another three million children could be saved each year", he said. "We hope we're going to see a major turnaround."

A correspondent asked how UNICEF planned to make the benefits of vaccines available to children living in areas where there was open conflict. Dr. de Quadros highlighted the organization's extensive experience in providing smallpox immunization services to children in war-torn areas, such as Ethiopia and Somalia. In those countries, "days of tranquility", or a humanitarian ceasefire -- had been negotiated to allow the vaccination of children. Just recently, the Secretary-General had brokered a successful peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to allow polio vaccinations. He said that "days of tranquility" had also been negotiated in Latin American countries during PAHO's polio eradication programme. "What we have seen in the past is that children's health is a bridge for peace", he said.

While "days of tranquility" were successful in some instances, there had been some failures, Mr. Roberfroid said. "However, we plan to make sure that our teams on the ground, in whatever country they may be, discuss immunization with all the parties involved in conflict to see how we can reach the children." He said that, although UNICEF was not going to make any overt policy on the issue, visibility was they key. "The more our message heard and the more we make our presence felt, the better chance we have to make headway in these situations", he said.

One correspondent wondered if there were cultural obstacles facing immunization programmes in the developing world. Would new technology be ignored in the face of strong traditional medical practices? he asked. Mr. Roberfroid responded that, while a certain amount of education was always necessary when providing medical treatment, he had never encountered any major cultural obstacles in the developing world. "It's more ignorance than cultural problems we're facing", he said. Once people knew about the availability of new medicines and vaccines, there had never been a problem implementing a particular programme. "If we make information available and create a demand, people will go for it."

Asked if there would be any end to the staggering number of reported cases of HIV/AIDS, Dr. Ciro de Quadros said, sadly, there was no way to tell when there would be a vaccine developed to fight the AIDS virus. "No one can tell you that", he said. "What I can tell you is that, until very recently, there were very few resources put into research and development of an HIV vaccine." He added that less than 2 per cent of the money spent to fight AIDS was for vaccine development, but initiatives like UNICEF's "The Children's Challenge" could possibly focus the energies of hundreds of scientists and draw on the resources of many different governments and private donors to the issue of vaccine development.

Mr. Roberfroid said that the initiative would not only directly increase the potential available for research; it would also make sure that new vaccines would be marketable. By bringing together the manufacturers and the consumers, the vaccines could find their way into countries that could not afford them at the present time. The countries that would be prioritized under the first action of the initiative would be the 50 poorest countries of the world.

"Many of these countries can't afford the vaccines", Mr. Roberfroid said. Procurement was a problem, as well as transport and storage. Training and educating the minimum amount of personnel could also be an obstacle. That was why it was so important in the alliance to have the capacity in each of those countries to study the problems and cooperate with host governments to come up with practical plans to solve them. "It's not enough to procure the vaccines", he said. "It's a first step, but until the vaccines reach these children, nothing has been done." The additional resources provided by the world alliance announced today would hopefully be able to overcome most of those obstacles.